Thursday, May 8, 2008

US Senators Step up for High Speed Rail

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

While the debate over Altamont-Pacheco continues, have some more news from Washington DC on high speed rail:

  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, is proposing to replenish the highway fund without hurting transit funding. In an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, Rockefeller wants to take $3.3 billion from the General Fund to address the shortfall in the highway fund. This is significant because Bush wants to raid the Mass Transit fund to cover that deficit. And there's a cherry for us HSR advocates:

    In addition, the Rockefeller amendment authorizes issuing tax-credit bonds to promote high-speed-rail investment.

    This would help encourage private investment in our own HSR system as it makes our bonds more attractive to buyers.

  • Sticking with mid-Atlantic Senators, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper gave a very pro-rail speech on the Senate floor in support of Rockefeller's amendment. It's worth quoting at some length:

    A strange thing is going on with respect to passenger rail ridership in this country.

    I used to serve on the Amtrak board when I was Governor of Delaware, and every year we would see ridership go up by a couple of percentage points. We would struggle, try to raise money out of the fare box to pay for the system and the expansion of the system. Well, the first quarter of this fiscal year, ridership at Amtrak is up 15 percent. Revenues are up by 15 percent. People are starting to realize that maybe it makes sense to get out of our cars, trucks, and vans and take the train or take transit. Transit ridership is up again this fiscal year more dramatically than it has been in some time....

    Americans are beginning to literally buy homes in places that are closer to opportunities for transit -- for rail, for bus, for subways, for the metro systems. As we have seen the drop in home prices across the country -- in some cases, very dramatic -- among the surprises, at least for me, is to see housing prices stable and in some cases actually going up in places where people can buy a home and live and get to work or wherever they need to go to shop without driving to get there....

    I think in this country people are crying out for leadership. They are calling out for Presidential leadership, whether it is from our side of the aisle or the Republican side. People want leaders who are willing to stay out of step when everybody else is marching to the wrong tune, and I would suggest that the wrong tune is to suspend the Federal gasoline tax and at the same time not replace the dollars that would otherwise go into the transportation trust fund to fix our dilapidated, our decaying transportation system. Voters in this country deserve better leadership from us. I am determined, I am committed to making sure we provide and pay for that....

    There other things we need to do too. We need to invest in rail service. We can send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. I will say that again. We could send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. But we as a government choose not to invest in freight rail and, frankly, to invest very modestly in passenger rail. It is a highly energy-efficient way to move people and goods.

    It may seem like just one Senator giving a speech to C-SPAN's cameras, but it's significant to see traditionally timid and hesitant Democrats like Carper making such a strong embrace of rail. And they "get" the changing nature of American society - he described the phenomenon of collapsing suburban home prices and stable urban home values and how ridership is soaring on Amtrak lines. The more politicians that internalize and understand these facts, the less likely it will be that they'll try to promote obsolete 20th century transportation solutions.

Combined with Barack Obama's very strong high speed rail statements it seems like Washington DC is starting to understand the need to emphasize transit solutions. Of course, it doesn't hurt that backward-looking solutions, like Hillary's gas tax holiday, have been shown as political losers.


Brandon in California said...

"I think in this country people are crying out for leadership."

Hello? Schwarzenegger?

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

The Senators might be up, but the Transport Secretary isn't. She's talking about trying to get 3 times more airspace! With HSR, we won't need 3 times more airspace.

Robert Cruickshank said...

I've got some major beefs with Arnold these days (just read my stuff at Calitics) but it would be nice if he showed leadership on HSR. It might be the only positive legacy he leaves for the state.

Whenever I read anything about Mary Peters I think to myself "January 20...January 20..."

Anonymous said...

Gov. Schwarzenegger has repeatedly stated that he is in favor of HSR, provided the state of California doesn't get stuck with a financial albatross if there are serious cost over-runs. That would be a terrible legacy.

He did try to starve CHSRA of funds and he did prioritize other transportation projects twice. In terms of both projected construction and economic opportunity costs, those were expensive delays. Until approx. 2005, the authority was focused primarily on preliminary engineering and the environmental impact studies to finalize the route and station locations. Additional work was required to nail down the vexed Altamont vs. Pacheco decision.

However, the governor felt the authority had not tried hard enough to bring on board private investors - and without those, the whole project was DOA as far as he was concerned. The recent appointments of David Crane and Curt Pringle to the CHSRA are supposed to turn that situation around, but it's fair to ask why the governor waited so long to make these adjustments to the board's make-up in the first place.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Pres. Bush would have resisted any bill that included federal authorization and funding for high speed rail. The issue is not the amount as such - 10 billion is peanuts in relation to the total budget - but that other HSR projects will follow if California builds the first one. All of them will reduce volume demand for gasoline, kerosene and the weapons needed to defend continued access to the oil in the Middle East. In other words, HSR runs counter to the supply-side policies of this administration.

Fortunately, the tide of public opinion has already turned against those policies. However, even Democratic members of Congress have until recently been wary of challenging the established transportation-related industries for fear of losing campaign contributions and significant constituencies.

If Sen. Obama clinches the nomination, HSR might become a poster child for change in transportation and energy policy. The promise of running high-speed trains on expensive renewable electricity alone might seem a extravagant, but it would make them much more attractive to voters and hence, to politicians. Belatedly, CSHRA is now spending $40k on a feasibility study - let's hope it gets completed soon with a positive recommendation.

Brandon in California said...

I do not disagree with many of your comments and prospectus.

But, it seems our governor could be more vocal on the subject. I'll relent to speculating that he's waiting 'til a closer date to election day in November.