Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Why We Need A Greener Stimulus

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

The Merced Sun-Star editorialized today for a greener, more sustainable economic stimulus, offering some excellent reasons for using this economic crisis as an opportunity to finally move beyond the now-failed policies of automobile dependence:

Environmentalists must understand that roads, bridges and highways are going to be an important part of our transportation infrastructure for a long time to come. We have neglected that infrastructure to the point of real danger, and that must be urgently addressed.

But proponents of the conventional wisdom in transportation must also recognize that we cannot build our way out of congestion and air quality problems by simply adding more freeway lanes.

That contributes to urban sprawl, with its attendant environmental damage, and does nothing to reduce our dependence on imports of foreign oil. Also, transit and rail systems are often less expensive to build than more highways to carry similar capacity.

One thing is clear: The time has passed for the heavy emphasis on roads and highway now enshrined in federal policy.

That dependence on foreign oil, the legacy of the decision to rely on cars alone as the means to provide mobility in America rather than a balanced approach of cars, trains, buses, bikes and feet, is a major reason for our economic crisis. If Barack Obama, Congress, and other policymakers want to get this country back on its feet and to avoid a repeat of the current meltdown, they need to ensure that more of the proposed stimulus goes to mass transit and not to fulfill state DOT highway dreams.

Obama didn't help when he said that the stimulus should fund projects ready to turn dirt within six months - the need for speed is there, but he should have given himself more flexibility to include using the stimulus for transit. Even so, Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, is working to increase the share of transit funding in the overall stimulus plan.

Some of that stimulus should go to high speed rail, of course, and even if our project gets federal funding in a later appropriation outside the immediate stimulus, even $50 million to pay for planning and engineering work would demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable transportation policy. Plus, planners and engineers need jobs too!

The details of the stimulus are still being worked out, and public pressure can help produce a better, greener, more transit-friendly stimulus. Transportation For America is running a campaign to pressure Congress to do exactly that. Sign the petition and let Congress know that we need to provide a big boost to mass transit - and let them know that HSR should be a part of that stimulus.


Anonymous said...

I suspect that most of us here support the idea that money for HSR is a wise long term investment for the US.

But everybody and his brother is out there claiming that their pet hobbyhorse is the best of all possible choices for the US to pour money into.

So, it seems to me that one way to help HSR get its part would be to find ways to cross-link with some of those other projects.

What other projects? For instance I just saw that some people want umpteen billion $$ to expand "broadband" communications.

Which raises the question - is CHSR planning on owning (and thence leasing) the rights for telecommunications links along its rights of way?

And similarly, might the proposed rights of way be somehow used to support new electrical power distribution systems that are needed for things like wind or solar farms (I see the Mojave/Palmdale to Las Vegas ROW being particularly interesting in that regard.)

Or are these ideas likely to turn into swamps that cause debates and arguments that might actually harm CHSR's prospects?

Rafael said...

It seems to me that any intelligent economic policy is going to differentiate between "emergency stimulus" (i.e. make-work) and "strategic investment". Fixing potholes falls into the first, HSR into the second category.

There is now a mad scramble in progress because the only thing the Obama transition team has talked about is the stimulus package. They could create a much-needed boost in consumer and business confidence if they made it clear that this package will be accompanied by a program of separate strategic investment bills that will stretch over the President's entire first term, with plans laid for a second term.

For example, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has suggested a stimulus of $600-700 billion in both 2009 and 2010. That's roughly $2 billion a day, a massive amount for a long-neglected sector to absorb in such a short time. Unless some system of disciplined program management is put in place, it is almost inevitable that politicians will misallocate funds and recipients will overcharge government agencies at all levels. This isn't free money, it's borrowing against future earnings.


Perhaps the smart thing to do would be to focus first on a framework bill (FB) describing the total volume of extraordinary public spending in 2009 and 2010, the target split between stimulus and strategic spending, core principles for establishing oversight structures and, metrics for the success of each type of spending.

The FB should formally cancel the second tranche of $350 billion of the hastily drafted TARP bill.

Instead, the FB should spell out a legislative agenda of smaller, more focused and more manageable bills to be passed at the rate of roughly one a month. In 2009, the first two should probably cover about $100 billion each, the other ten about $50 billion each. That should also be the approximate target volume for each month in 2010. This arrangement allows members of Congress to divide the labor of crafting solid legislation in parallel efforts.

To reduce delays, the first draft of each of these bills should be prepared jointly by selected members of the House and Senate. Amendments in each body will create some divergence, but sponsors should communicate regularly to at least try an minimize the amount of reconciliation that needs to happen in conference. Bills related to the FB should enjoy precedence over all other legislation except national security and emergency aid in response to natural disasters.


The focus of the first bill should be on keeping government employees in gainful employments, which means giving the Federal Reserve authority to extend 30-year loans at reasonable interest rates to states struggling to keep the lights on in the context of a collapsing tax base.

Critically, this includes funding for planning of future infrastructure development, both physical and human (education/training). Each state will need some time and money to develop medium-and-long term plans that align its strategic plan with the objectives laid out in the FB. Many states will need to send some planners to federally sponsored (re-)training programs, especially on processes related to rail transport, renewable power generation and long-distance power transmission.

Money spent on planning should be accounted for as stimulus or strategic investment on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, splits will be the best representation.

Aligning with the strategic objectives may also require some changes to state law, e.g. eliminating restrictions on the types of transport infrastructure that gasoline and diesel taxes may be spent on.


The second and subsequent bills should focus separately on specific types of projects, i.e. repairing roads, repairing bridges, repairing water & sewage, hiring back recently laid off teachers and social workers etc.


Of the total $700 billion for 2009, some 80% should be spent on stimulus projects that do not conflict with the long-term goals described in the FB. For the sake of fairness, the money should be reserved for each state based on its most recent population census data.

This does not mean handing over the money to governors and state assemblies. Rather, the combined Congressional delegation from each state will be responsible for submitting applications toward each bill based on prep work done at the state level. It will be up to Congressional committees to scrutinize these applications to ensure they meet the specified formats and guidelines.

I'm sure every single state has plenty of overdue maintenance projects related to sewers, sewage treatment plants, water mains, steam mains, crumbling government buildings/schools, potholes etc. that can get construction workers back on the job quickly. The project mix should reflect the need to get not just men but also women back to work - construction is still a male domain.

The other 20% should be focused on strategic investment. Projects should be selected on both their degree of maturity and, on how well they align with the strategic objectives. It's best to be stingy with this money. If there are not enough deserving projects, funds left over can be re-allocated to stimulus projects, carried over to the next year or canceled.

Bills dedicated to strategic investment should be scheduled every four months. It's useful to get into a legislative rhythm because it gives politicians at the state and federal level a time horizon for getting their ducks in a row.


In 2010, the amount targeted at strategic investment should be 30-40% of the total $600 billion. After that, stimulus spending should cease entirely and the absolute amount allocated to strategic investments reviewed.

Generally speaking, public support to sustain strategic investment will be much stronger if voters/taxpayers perceive the legislative and bureaucratic process by-and-large as fair, effective and efficient.

For example, strategic projects that receive some funding early and can show that it was used well should enjoy priority for additional funding, up to the total required. California HSR could fit this model very well IFF project management is tight and CHSRA shares hard-won expertise with FRA and planners working on other eligible but less mature HSR projects.

Anonymous said...

When is the 1.5 Billion HSR funds in the Amtrak bill going to be released? this might help us in the next year or so.As far as I heard planning will stop if the Budget is not fixed soon as CAHSRA needs to get at a tiny piece of the bond money to keep work going

Anonymous said...

Private sector involvement seems necessary to ensure a good rate of return and to discourage bridges to nowhere.
Private companies are getting onboard HSR and intermodal investment. There are "aquatic/lifestyle centers" and other crap in the list of plans put forward by mayors and state governments. Can you believe that?

Rafael said...

@ Karl -

I haven't heard anything on telecoms rights, but I would very much welcome an announcement that reliable broadband internet access will be available on the trains. For latency-sensitive applications such as videoconferencing and multiplayer video games, strictly terrestrial systems such as WiMAX (802.16e-2005 or 802.16m) would be preferable to the SNCF's satellite-based concept.

Caltrain ran a successful technical trial back in 2006 at 79mph but could not afford to implement it in commercial service.

On high speed trains, multiple receivers per train might be needed. Running some fiber optic cable in the anyhow present cable trench next to the rails would provide massive backbone bandwidth for the purpose. The transmitters could be attached to the catenary poles. There would also be scope for using the same system to provide broadband internet access to individual homes and villages in rural areas located up to about 10 miles from the line, plus economically deprived neighborhoods in the cities.

As for using the HSR ROW for new transmission lines to support the distribution of solar, geothermal and biogas renewable power, I think that would make a lot of sense strategically. HVDC cables could be buried underground in tunnels and downtown areas, where extended catenary masts or pylons would not be possible or acceptable. However, I don't know if there are electro-magnetic or mechanical problems that would preclude running HVDC in directly above the separate 25kV AC catenaries.

However, CHSRA has just wrapped up the program portion of the EIR/EIS. Any effort to piggyback regular power distribution onto its effort would have to be structured such that HSR implementation is not delayed. With just a couple of years before ground is broken, a lot of prep work would have to be done quickly to create at least an implementation option later on.

Note that opponents of new power lines argue that highly decentralized power generation, especially via rooftop photovoltaic panels and small wind turbines, is a better solution. That would break the traditional model of a small number of large-scale producers and quite possibly also cost more.

Rafael said...

@ trikby -

the eligibility criteria, award of grants and disbursement schedule for HR 2095 money are all specified in Title V the bill.

The bill establishes a timeline for the process for awarding grants but not a deadline for doing so. Considering the bill passed into law and submissions must be in within 270 days, I'd say the second half of 2009 is the earliest any checks could be written.



Section 501:

‘(1) APPLICANT- The term ‘applicant’ means a State, a group of States, an Interstate Compact, a public agency established by one or more States and having responsibility for providing high-speed rail service, or Amtrak.

‘(4) HIGH-SPEED RAIL- The term ‘high-speed rail’ means intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour.

‘(f) Federal Share- The Federal share of the cost of a project financed under this section shall not exceed 80 percent of the project net capital cost.

‘(g) Issuance of Regulations- Within 1 year after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary shall issue regulations to carry out this section.
‘(h) Authorization of Appropriations- There are authorized to be appropriated to the Secretary to carry out this section--

‘(1) $150,000,000 for fiscal year 2009;

‘(2) $300,000,000 for fiscal year 2010;

‘(3) $350,000,000 for fiscal year 2011;

‘(4) $350,000,000 for fiscal year 2012; and

‘(5) $350,000,000 for fiscal year 2013.’.

Section 502:

(a) Solicitation of Proposals-

(1) IN GENERAL- Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall issue a request for proposals for projects for the financing, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a high-speed intercity passenger rail system operating within a high-speed rail corridor, including--

(A) the Northeast Corridor;

(B) the California Corridor;

(C) the Empire Corridor;

(D) the Pacific Northwest Corridor;

(E) the South Central Corridor;

(F) the Gulf Coast Corridor;

(G) the Chicago Hub Network;

(H) the Florida Corridor;

(I) the Keystone Corridor;

(J) the Northern New England Corridor; and

(K) the Southeast Corridor.

(2) SUBMISSION- Proposals shall be submitted to the Secretary not later than 270 days after the publication of such request for proposals under paragraph (1).

(f) Preliminary Engineering- For planning and preliminary engineering activities that meet the criteria [...], not to exceed $5,000,000 [...]. Only 1 proposal for each corridor under subsection (a) shall be eligible for such funds.

Alon Levy said...

I hope they revise their priorities before going with the current ten-corridor proposal, which connects Montreal to Boston but not to New York, and Houston to New Orleans and Atlanta but not to Dallas or San Antonio.

Rafael said...

@ Alon Levy -

HR 2095 explicitly spells out which corridors are eligible but I fully expect the map to be redrawn for the much larger Kerry Bill once the NEC and California actually get some dollars.

In particular, the Texas T-bone, the Las Vegas-SoCal connector and the Atlanta-Chattanooga-Nashville project may be added. The latter is essentially a result of Georgia's desire to divert water from the Tennessee river.

Florida HSR may be revived, though voters in that state would have to reverse a constitutional amendment first. Some folks are even pushing for a line from Wyoming to New Mexico.

Rob Dawg said...

The State has announced its intention to issue IOUs for tax refunds. Even if legal and affordable does anyone see the problem with initiating HSR funding in that environment?

Anonymous said...

This is a short term Red/Blue BS we go thru here all the time...you know that..I see your back

Gamecoug said...

I agree with Alon. The current proposal which links Columbia SC to Raliegh NC, but not to Greenville, SC and Charlotte, NC is the silliest thing i've seen in a while. It must spring from the location of mainline right of ways, but good grief, there are interstates linking Columbia to Charlotte and Greenville. Surely one of those could also be a right of way for a rail connection.

Seems like there are other commonsense changes that should be made. Why not link Cleveland with Pittsburgh? Houston to Dallas?

Rafael said...

@ rob dawg -

depending on how the stimulus package and strategic investments are structured, it may well come to pass that CHSRA, a state agency, ends up supported exclusively by federal funds for a few months. I really hope there will be a special election real soon now with a proposition to to amend the state constitution in this respect. The state can no longer afford to wait until the next mid-terms to get its fiscal house in order.

Another possibility is that a private investor will step up to the plate with a few million to put itself in a very strong position to win a juicy contract further down the road.

@ gamecoug -

its tempting to play connect-the-dots, e.g. between Pittsburgh and Columbus. However, a line from NY to Chicago via Philly, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Toledo would be over 900 miles long. That's arguably well beyond the range at which steel wheels HSR is time-competitive with air travel.

Unless kerosene becomes seriously expensive again and reliable broadband wireless internet becomes available on US trains in commercial service, that means linking those two corridors would be justifiable only if there is sufficient demand for shorter trips, e.g. Philadelphia-Columbus or Chicago-Pittsburgh. There might well be, relative to the incremental cost of the connector. However, you need a recent ridership study to make that determination.

True HSR (186mph or more) makes sense in a select few regional contexts, rapid rail (125mph or less with mixed light-medium freight and passenger traffic) in quite a few more. However, neither should be construed as modern incarnations of the transcontinental railroad. People in rural states like Nebraska may never have HSR or rapid rail service.

Anonymous said...

Re Nebraska and HSR:

Gee, I would have liked to see a Platte River link - Red Cloud to Lincoln - Could have called it (pardon my 1960's reference): the One Toke Over (the) Line.

(I hadn't heard of a revived Boston to Montreal line - via White River Junction? Gee just the other month I was walking around the old Boston and Main yards in West Lebanon and thinking that it would be cool to resurrect the old buildings and roundhouse.)

OK, so much for poor humor. But hey, it's new years eve! And let's all hope that by this time next year there is money in the till and the next stage EIR's and engineering are well on their way.

Anonymous said...

I wonder just how much of that HR2095 money we can hope to pull in?

Alon Levy said...

I almost wish it followed existing rights-of-way. New York to Montreal already has an existing ROW, as well as a reasonable alternative ROW, I-87, with a large turn radius.