One of the consistent points this blog has made since we launched in March 2008 is that HSR is part of an overall effort to revive passenger rail in California. HSR isn't a substitute for other forms of local rail - in some places, like the Peninsula and Southern California, it enhances local rail by enabling more and faster service on commuter lines such as Caltrain and Metrolink. Prop 1A recognized the need for a linked system by offering about $1 billion for non-HSR passenger rail in the state. And this site cheered on ballot initiatives for other local passenger rail projects, including Measure R in LA County and the authorization of funds for SMART in Sonoma-Marin.
Unfortunately, these are challenging times for sustainable mass transit advocates. The recession has been accompanied by a revival of Hooverism at both the state and federal levels. In 2009 California eliminated state spending on local mass transit, and has put on hold the issuance of bonds from Prop 1B in 2006, which includes money to improve existing passenger rail systems. The federal government has been a bit more friendly to transit, but the authorization of a new transportation bill that would provide stable funding for passenger rail of all kinds has been stalled all year and may not be approved until sometime in 2010 (if we're lucky).
This is an environment where mass transit advocates, especially passenger rail advocates, need to stick together and advocate for more funding for rail as a whole, with specific funding to local, regional, intercity, and HSR projects as appropriate. We need to advocate for a holistic plan, instead of doing what the Hooverites want us to do, which is fight over the scraps.
That coalitional approach is not made any easier by the actions of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The LA Times got around to reporting the controversy over the state's singular focus on HSR funds in its federal stimulus application, to the exclusion of other passenger rail:
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly spiked an effort last month to win $1.1 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds for 29 projects to improve the safety, speed and capacity of heavily traveled commuter corridors through Southern California.
Instead, he ordered state officials to seek money for only one project -- the proposed bullet train between San Francisco and San Diego.
The governor's decision was intended to increase the state's chances of receiving high-speed rail money, officials said. California is competing with more than 40 applicants from 23 other states.
Richard Tolmach, one of the state's main HSR deniers, has been peddling this story for weeks and apparently finally got someone to bite. He wants to frame this as further evidence that HSR is bad, should be opposed, and is a threat to other passenger rail in the state. And yet, there is logic in what Arnold did. With over $50 billion in stimulus applications submitted this month, and only $8 billion to go around, California was going to have to pick and choose among a number of worthy proposals. There was no way around it. And even if you disagree with the outcome, it cannot be denied that it does make sense for the state to have focused on the high-profile HSR project, which after all has received glowing praise from the very federal officials who are tasked with distributing these funds.
Even if all $1.1 billion in non-HSR funds were applied for, it is extremely unlikely that much of it would have ever been awarded by the feds. Federal officials have sold this as a high speed rail stimulus, so there would have been risk if they awarded that money to non-HSR projects like those along the Pacific Surfliner corridor.
There is also a legitimate argument to be made that even with the above in mind, since HSR won't be complete for another decade, there was benefit to applying to provide more immediate improvements to existing passenger rail systems. I get that, and appreciate that thinking. There's no doubt that California's existing intercity rail corridors need more investment.
But the decision to not pursue that investment in this particular round of funding is by no means a death knell for those efforts. The article explains some other options for providing funding for Metrolink Positive Train Control, one of the projects Arnold chose not to include in the stimulus application:
However, Richard Katz, a former assemblyman who sits on the Metrolink, high-speed rail and Metropolitan Transportation Authority boards, was more optimistic that conventional rail projects, such as positive train control, would not be jeopardized by the governor's concentration on high-speed rail.
For example, Katz said, Metrolink, which serves six counties, needs roughly $200 million to $210 million to install positive train control by 2012.
About $70 million has been requested from other federal sources, and efforts are underway to try to redirect $97 million from state transportation bonds that are earmarked to rebuild the Colton railroad crossing.
If positive train control cannot get enough federal or state funding, Katz said he believes the MTA would lend Metrolink the money.
As to the more ambitious - and necessary - projects to include more grade separations and new tracks along the Surfliner corridor, their future funding sources are less obvious. But that should not mean backers ought to turn their fire on the CHSRA, which did what any other agency would do and argue they should get funded first.
This is a crucial moment for passenger rail advocates in California. Either we can let Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has never been a friend to rail, divide us and weaken passenger rail - or we can unite and push hard for renewed funding for these other worthy projects. Here are four ways we can get started:
- One obvious place to begin is the federal transportation bill. There is no reason it should remain stalled in Congress. If Democrats lose Senate seats in 2010, as is projected right now, then it is not possible to push through a new transportation bill that would properly fund passenger rail. All hands will need to be on deck for that one.
- Advocates should also join the push for $4 billion in HSR funding in the FY 2010 budget. This would create a precedent for ongoing HSR funding at that level, creating less pressure on California government to try and get their HSR money from other rail projects.
- Passenger rail activists also need to get active in the push for a second federal stimulus. Although Obama Administration officials have dismissed such talk, it is only continuing to grow as unemployment continues to rise. Infrastructure is always a popular target of stimulus spending, and given how many states submitted passenger rail stimulus applications, it's clear there is an appetite out there for more money than what the feds have offered so far.
- We also need to fight back against the steady defunding of mass transit, including passenger rail, at the state level. All forms of passenger rail - streetcars, light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak California, and high speed rail - are necessary to meet California's 21st century challenges. Given our state's financial crisis, it may seem like a tall order to find new sources of funding for these projects. But it is imperative that we do so.
Folks like Richard Tolmach are happy to exploit the lack of proper funding to attack high speed rail and ensure that passenger rail in California remains a moderately successful but niche element of our state's transportation network. And given that HSR is necessary to Caltrain's survival, Tolmach's approach would jeopardize even the existing services we have.
We should not play his game. Nor should we play Arnold Schwarzenegger's game. Passenger rail advocates need to avoid the temptation to fall out over modal preferences, and instead unite to grow the pie, rather than fight over who gets to eat the ever-smaller slices.