As we await the Federal Railroad Administration's decision on awarding the $8 billion in HSR stimulus funds, some observers are wondering how exactly the projects will be selected - and what the role of merit and politics will be. Over at Railway Age, editor William Vantuono suggests the FRA will be caught between those two considerations:
Let’s assume two things. First, Administrator Szabo has every intention of sticking to the letter of the law, and to the intent of the program, by awarding project grants based on merit. Second, any program involving government dollars is going to involve politics. That’s just the way it is. Anyone who doesn’t believe this needs a serious reality check.
In the case of HSR—actually, “HrSR” (“higher speed” rail, incremental improvements to existing freight rail corridors to enable 90-125 mph passenger trains)—the political game-playing will mostly come from the states. Case in point: A project in one Midwest state, we’re told, does not meet all the FRA’s criteria, in terms of project management, environmental and ridership studies, financial plan, technical score, etc. The state agency in charge of submitting the grant application asked the FRA for guidance. The FRA basically said, “You don’t meet the criteria; don’t submit the application.” We’re told, however, that this state’s Republican governor ordered the agency to submit the application anyway. Why? Because if it’s rejected, the governor can go to his constituents and claim that the Democrats running Washington won’t give his state the funds for a project that will create jobs.
Partisan politics as usual? Of course. Did you expect anything different?
There's much less doubt about whether California's HSR project meets the criteria - it clearly does, AND it has widespread political support from the Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Vice-President Joe Biden, and the California Congressional delegation which, after all, includes the Speaker of the House. It is certain that California will get a big chunk of the stimulus money.
But how big? That's where these issues of the merit and politics of other HSR proposals will affect us in California. We submitted a $4.5 billion request, but can really only expect to get $3-$4 billion. Where we fall in that range will depend on how the FRA and the White House decide to allocate the rest of the money. If they feel the need to keep Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Florida happy (states that were key to Obama's 2008 victory and will be key to his 2012 reelection bid) then we may have to make do with $3 billion and not $4 billion. It's highly unlikely, of course, that they'll give it all to California.
As sources have described the FRA decision-making process to me, the FRA will determine which CA HSR projects get stimulus funding. It won't be a case of them giving us a set amount of money for us to use as we see fit. They may choose to fund the Central Valley test line (Merced-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield) and LA-Anaheim and not fund SF-San Jose. Which is actually what I expect will happen.
What I hope we avoid is a situation where CA gets less than $3 billion because Obama feels the need to shore up his position in some of those states I mentioned. Given the amount of stimulus money applied for - around $50 billion from 24 states - there will be the temptation to squeeze California. Especially since it's easy for those other 23 states to whine about California hogging all the money.