Friday, July 18, 2008

The View from Washington, DC

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

While Robert is out of town (Congratulations to you and your fiancee!), it's an honor to help fill the big shoes he leaves behind for the time being. I represent the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the only national, membership-based organization that works for better intercity passenger train service in the country.

As consumer advocates representing the traveling public, we understand the tremendous benefits that HSR will provide to Californians. The Executive Committee of our Board of Directors formally endorsed the project last week. As a Los Angeles native, I grew up to become painfully aware of the differences between the California we have now, and the greener, more dynamic California we will have once HSR is up and running. I greatly look forward to working in the coming months with state rail advocacy groups such as RailPAC, our allies with environmental and other public interest concerns, student organizers, and other citizen proponents of Proposition 1.

From Washington, DC, the outlook for intercity passenger trains in general is brighter than it has been for a long time. The bipartisan, blue-ribbon National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission submitted its report to Congress this year to provide a framework to reauthorize surface transportation programs for the next five years.

What's significant is that the report recommends that the Congress allocate $9 billion annually in dedicated funding for passenger rail, currently the only mode of surface transportation that does not have a dedicated funding source. (Until this year, states like California could not leverage a federal match for its investments in new trains or tracks. We now have a $30 million federal pilot program for the current fiscal year. It's paltry, but it's a start.)

Amtrak and passenger rail programs received $1.362 billion in the current year, against an estimated need of $1.8 billion just to keep pace (and after years of even worse starvation diets). As the appropriations process moves forward for 2009, we may see a slight increase, but until we get the kind of federal commitment called for by the NSTPRC, it's just tinkering around the edges.

NSTPRC also provided a framework of ten major programs around which Congress should base future investments. The only one that was mode-specific is Intercity Passenger Rail, reflecting the short shrift that trains have gotten in a distorted market over the past several decades (examples of other programs include Metropolitan Mobility, Federal Lands, and Research & Development).

Proposition 1 will be a major shot of adrenaline to HSR in America, giving Congress greater policy and political incentives to heed the Commission report and emboldening other states to follow California's lead. As California-style innovation goes, so goes the nation. NARP's resolution notes, "California's initiative in high-speed rail will likely be replicated elsewhere in our country, placing California, once again, in a transportation leadership role."

As for the private sector, we are seeing more examples every day of investors coming to understand HSR operations as a good risk. Italy, notoriously stereotyped for its bureaucracies, will see its first private HSR service in 2011:

The new rail operator, NTV, is a $1.4 billion project that will link Rome, Milan, Turin, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Naples, as well as Bari and Salerno in the south, officials said. It will make a total of 54 journeys a day.


The service, which will run on Italy's existing rail network, will use 25 11-car AGV trains by French engineering company Alstom SA, which will be delivered in three years.

Alstom said NTV will be the first operator worldwide to use its AGV very high-speed train. The trains will be equipped with specially designed seats, Internet connections and on-demand TV, traveling at a cruising speed of around 190 mph on existing Italian high-speed rails, the company said.

California may end up looking to Italy as a model, one in which passengers will enjoy a range of options for fast, safe travel along publicly-owned, well-maintained trackage.

But none of that can happen here until we have the kind of glistening, new infrastructure that only the public sector can provide, to unleash the potential of public-private partnerships.

There's no question that the federal government can end modal discrimination and make it a national priority to assist states like California that want to end their dependence on oil-based mobility, enliven their economies, and improve their environment and quality of life. But it takes political commitment, and we and our members will do everything in our power to make it happen. But we'll need your help on the grassroots level, too.

Prop 1 will be a great start, but not the end of the heavy lifting. Stay tuned.


Rob Dawg said...

There's no question that the federal government can end modal discrimination

Be careful what you wish for. There are no taxes and significant subsidies for passenger rail. There are reasons for that but calls for a level playing field do not benefit passenger rail service.

Matthew Melzer said...

Current subsidies and tax advantages are minor. If passenger rail qualified for 80-20 federal matches the way other modes do, California alone could have gotten $8 billion for the $2 billion it has pumped into its Amtrak network since 1990. What we need is for states to be able to leverage federal investments in a way that is not biased against trains, which is where the smart money is and will be in the future.

Transportation funding has always been distorted in some way, so there's no level playing field. At the same time, the fundamentals of energy and the environment are changing profoundly. That gives passenger trains a significant advantage over other modes in terms of external benefits, yet trains are still hampered by federal policy.

It's appalling that the current framework discourages state investment in intercity trains, yet 14 states have forged ahead anyway. Once we fix the inherent bias, more will follow, and in a big way.

Anonymous said...

Senator Ashburn deserves the legislator star award of the year for having the guts to take on the gang running the California High Speed Rail Authority, which has wasted $58 millions and 8 years, while doing nothing more than designing a project that is intended to enhance the wealth of insiders and allow San Jose and San Francisco control where and how the project is to be built.
The un-holy alliance with CalTrain, seeks to gain free grade crossings and electrification along the peninsula while destroying the communities of San Mateo, Burlingame, Atherton, Menlo Park, San Carlos etc. The Authority doesn't listen to any public comments but just goes on with its own selfish plans.
The cost estimates are un-believable. The project will cost $100 billion, not 40 billion. The ridership will be more like 25 million per year not the projected 117,000,000 per year.
The Senate committee led by Senator Lowenthal issues a 35 page scathing report tearing apart the authority and Kopp, the leader of the Authority, simply wilts under the questioning of Senator Ashburn. Where is your business plan he asks. Kopp can't answer. Ashburn fires off "you don't have a business plan".
$58 millions gone, an EIR/EIS not valid because they can't use the Union Pacific right of way. How much more can be wrong with this project.
Still the Democratic majority refuses to clean house and get a proper process started.
So don't be laying the blame on Ashburn or the Republicans; lay the blame where it belongs, on the backs of Rod Diridon, famous father of the light rail fiasco in Santa Clara county, Kopp and Morshed, who are nothing more than pawns for the political interests in San Francisco and San Jose.

Matthew Melzer said...

As I said in the thread below, the obstructionist Mid-Peninsula NIMBYs are obviously fighting tooth-and-nail to stop CAHSRA and Caltrain from combining their efforts (and saving taxpayer money in the process) to deliver safer, faster, cleaner, and more efficient train service to the Bay Area. Unfortunately, this obstructionism harms the rest of the state, too.

The $58m has been spent on necessary environmental and planning work for the largest public works project in CA history, within the scope of tough regulations. Let's see you do it for less.

Jason48's concerns about the process (and I'm sure he's sincere in thinking it's flawed) have been addressed in previous posts. The rest is partisan vitriol (on what should be a non-partisan issue) and shameless fear-mongering.

Robert was right: HSR foes at this point have no legitimate arguments, only FUD.

Brandon in California said...

To teh blog author:
Can you convey the status of Federal efforts concerning Federal funds that may or would be available to teh CHSR system?

A report recommends $9 billion. Is that all there is right now from the Feds? A report?

What has the House or Senate done lately? I thought they passed some legislation authorizing funding. Or, are they waiting to see what happens in California on November 4th first?

Your claims are not justified. Matthew is right.

Anonymous said...

Jason48 is posted his samr comment
on other sites...hum ...a full time
job??? from a certain group of people?

Matthew Melzer said...


The report should inform the surface transportation reauthorization bill next year, which provides a five-year guideline for annual funding. Up until now, this process has basically excluded passenger trains.

Amtrak is supposed to operate under its own authorization, but the last one expired in 2002. The House and Senate both passed new versions by veto-proof majorities, and conferees are currently working out the differences. For summaries, see:

As you can see, modest amounts would be available for state matching grants. But even if the bill becomes law, it's a "hunting license" that merely provides guidelines for annual appropriations.

The problem is that Amtrak and passenger rail is paid for out of the general fund, which is hard in the current budgetary climate. That's why it's so important to create a dedicated funding source for capital investments in passenger trains, just as we have for other modes (only, it needs to be sustainable; the Highway Trust Fund is quickly depleting). This is what we hope to address with surface transportation reauthorization next year.

Rafael said...

The biggest problem at the federal level will be convincing senators from rural states to support a California petition for matching funds. They may refuse to do so unless there's something in that omnibus public works bill for their states, too - which is fair enough, I suppose.

The best approach might be to reserve matching funds for each state in proportion to its population. Eligible projects must aim to reduce the dependence of that state's transportation sector on fossil oil and preferably, also reduce its fossil carbon footprint. New or expanded services should connect to existing ones rather than duplicate them.

For example, a state might choose to ask Amtrak to run additional trains on short routes within its territory. Another might pursue improved local transit for its largest population center. Others may want bicycle lane miles or, construct a regional network linking multiple states. The type of project should be informed by the local situation, one size does not fit all.

States would be given a reasonable amount of time - e.g. 4 years - to prepare and file an EIR/EIS with the appropriate federal authorities, with additional time available for complex proposals and those that involve multiple states.

Failure to file in time would mean the matching funds are forfeited. Note that states (incl. counties and cities) would still have to pony up an amount at least equal to that provided by Congress. Any private participation would be over-and-above that.

Anonymous said...

I want to support HSR but this mess of rail ops in the state is not worthy of a dime. There is the HSR, whatever you think of them, and the Caltrans Rail Div, and even the PUC for grade seps. This has got to be better organized and managed. Do you want a legacy boondoggle like the 'big dig' or something to be proudly associated with in the future when they write your epitath.

The whole mess needs to stop until it gets a better re write.

Anonymous said...

IF you dont have the balls to post your name then your a pussy necon/ or an egg-head Stanford old man!I dont care about worthless Palto-alto or menlo park ..pigs MILLIONS
of people will enjoy and use this system ..YES ON PROP 1 .and we are

CAL said...

Now after the stupid password go high speed No ANNO coments

Spokker said...

I hope the California High Speed Rail Authority and whoever else is behind this project is corrupt as can be. Maybe then it would actually get built.

With all of the shady backdoor dealings going on in politics, I'd like to see it result in some usable transit infrastructure for the state.

If someone is getting rich off of this project, God bless 'em. They've earned it, as long as their corrupt project gets me to SF from LA in 3 hours or less.

Anonymous said...

I hope the California High Speed Rail Authority and whoever else is behind this project is corrupt as can be. Maybe then it would actually get built. If someone is getting rich off of this project, God bless 'em. They've earned it,

Rest assured you will get your wish. At a minimum, passenger rail projects in California are 10 times more expensive on a per-mile basis relative to comparable projects in Germany, Spain, or France. And the major principals in the CAHSR have never delivered a project without 100% cost overruns.

With all of the shady backdoor dealings going on in politics, I'd like to see it result in some usable transit infrastructure for the state.

The main goal is enrichment of the contracting lobby. If usable transit service results, it would be entirely by luck or accident. In the case of Rod Diridon ("Father of VTA Light Rail" and now CAHSR head honcho) billions were spent on an utterly inutile light rail system, with the end result that transit ridership in Santa Clara county is lower now than it was 2 decades ago.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ Throwing mud and seeing what sticks?

The merit of such comments have zero value without proof or substantive evidence.

I challenge you to provide a more coherent argument.... something worthy of peoples attention.

Anything short of that are 'trollish' comments.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ that was for spokker

Spokker said...

"^^^ that was for spokker"

Much of my comment was tongue in cheek. In any case, fight fire with fire, my friend.

Anonymous said...

The Feds studied HSR during the Clinton administration, including a possible HSR line in California, and concluded that while something like an Acela might make sense in some applications (certainly not a SF-San Diego route), really high speed rail simply doesn't add up. The study is here:

The cost/benefit figures being presented in order to get support for this project are simply B.S. --- the only way this line will ever experience the ridership projected is if flights between SF and LAX are outlawed! As for making a profit that will pay for expansion of the system --- give me a break!