Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Obama Repeat Clinton's Failure?

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

A Democratic president elected after a President Bush led America into a war with Iraq and national recession, a young candidate offering change, promising in particular to change our transportation policy to something more transit friendly, including an explicit promise to build a high speed rail network.

As Yonah at The Transport Politic points out in a must-read post, that wasn't just Barack Obama in 2008 - it was also Bill Clinton in 1992. Unfortunately for America, Clinton's promises never quite came to fruition, pushing back real action on HSR for nearly 20 years:

Before he was elected, Mr. Clinton had laid out a major economic plan, one of whose major elements was the high-speed rail system. Unlike Mr. Obama in his recent statement, Mr. Clinton was willing to put “rail systems” (presumably transit) and “high-speed rail” in the same sentence as “roads and bridges.” Mr. Clinton clearly didn’t find the issue to be so controversial that he wasn’t willing to talk about it. And Mr. Clinton was running on the right of the Democratic Party.

Yonah quotes from Bill Clinton's statement in the second debate from October 1992:

“My plan would dedicate $20 billion a year in each of the next four years for investment and new transportation, communications, environmental clean-up, and new technologies for the 21st century and we would target it especially in areas that have been either depressed or which have lost a lot of defense-related jobs. There are 200,000 people in California, for example, who’ve lost their defense-related jobs. They ought to be engaged in making high-speed rail; they ought to be engaged in breaking ground in other technologies, doing waste recycling, clean water technology, and things of that kind.“

For those of us who may have forgotten (or for those of you who weren't alive then), California was facing a severe economic recession with the end of the Cold War and the scaling back of the defense industry that, in Southern California especially, fueled the 1980s boom. Clinton explicitly said that a California HSR project would be a good way to provide jobs for a state that desperately needed them.

So what happened to Clinton the HSR builder? According to Yonah, despite enthusiasm from environmentalists and rail advocates - including then-Amtrak president W. Graham Claytor - Clinton's initial post-election plans did not come through on HSR and a 1993 HSR bill died in the House:

And yet we all know what comes next. Mr. Clinton entered office and the 1993 High-Speed Rail Development Act, considered in the House, did not move. Though the Federal Railroad Administration has designated corridors for high-speed rail, little has come of the effort. Though Mr. Clinton’s campaign persona seemed like it would produce a very pro-rail president, the result was far less than that. Mr. Clinton did little to promote the issue. He never designated more than a few million dollars to any corridor. The Northeast Corridor’s improvement was half-hearted and resulted in not-so-fast “high-speed” rail.

We can provide more detail. Early 1993 saw a pitched battle between the new administration and moderate and conservative Democrats in the Congress who did not agree with Clinton's new priorities, such as Clinton's plans for a BTU tax - an early '90s version of a carbon tax - and for an increased gas tax to pay for these projects. Conservative Dems in particular objected to new federal spending, forcing the Clinton Administration to climb down from its more ambitious goals in order to save the stimulus - which was already facing a filibuster from Senate Republicans.

Clinton never did get another opportunity to follow up on his HSR promises. After Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 election, Clinton had to acquiesce to many Republican budget cutting demands, especially on Amtrak. Clinton was able to get the Acela built, but because of Republican penny pinching they had to use the existing tracks and corridor, leaving the Acela short of being a true high speed rail system (in spite of that it is still a very successful service). The FRA did produce the HSR corridor plan but again with Republicans controlling the Congressional purse strings this never got beyond the conceptual stage. Meanwhile George W. Bush was killing the Texas HSR project and his brother was planning to do the same in Florida.

The lesson here is that political opportunities for high speed rail do not come along very often. 2008 was a wonderful year for us both in California and in Washington DC. Obama and Biden are both talking a good game but we have yet to see a detailed plan. Kerry's HSR bill is also a good start, but it must not die as did its 1993 predecessor.

It is entirely possible given the ugly economic situation and the precariousness of the Democratic majority in Congress that 2010 could see Republican victories as in 1994. Clinton rode a booming economy to victory in 1996; Obama will not likely have such beneficial circumstances in 2012. That means 2009 is the time to get some real federal support for HSR. As Yonah concludes:

The lesson we should take from the Clinton campaign is to take our own interpretations of Mr. Obama’s statements with a grain of salt. Though it’s nice to imagine the candidate is going to go all-out for high-speed rail, his positions so far have been less forthright than those of Mr. Clinton. Clearly, the President-elect is going to have to do a lot to convince us of his true positions - and that means prioritizing, in the budget.

We shall see in the next few months whether Mr. Obama truly cares about high-speed rail. But let’s not forget to keep up our own activism, rather than let our assumptions about his get in the way.

Absolutely right. We must hold Obama's feet to the fire, and be prepared to do battle with his administration and the Congress if necessary to ensure that HSR funding becomes reality in 2009. We wasted a perfect opportunity in 1993 - we cannot do that in 2009.

To help ensure that Washington DC produces real action and real funding for passenger rail, including HSR, Transportation For America is conducting a write-your-Congressman campaign. Click the link, fill it out, it only takes a few minutes.

We will be launching an HSR-specific version in January here at the blog. The first weeks and months of 2009 will be crucial to the success of California High Speed Rail - and HSR around the country.


Anonymous said...

Well one big difference is we have 9billion on our side already and I dont the Republicans are going to anything this midterm.It would be nice if get a nice secure fund upfront as it would help alot with the private money. And there was no real California high speed rail plan in 93 only some concept study never the less we need to keep banging away till we get our money secure. I think DiFi will get us our money!

Robert Cruickshank said...

Those are good points. There are reasons to believe 2009 will indeed be different than 1993 - gas was around $1.25/gal then, and while we might actually see that soon, the last six years and especially this summer have shown us such cheap prices aren't going to last.

Plus, in spring 1993, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were fresh(woman) senators, whereas now they wield immense power within that body. Nancy Pelosi was a 4th term member of Congress from SF; now she's Speaker of the House.

And yes, we have something neither Florida nor Texas ever had - a dedicated source of funding.

Still, the experience of 1993 shows that we can't take anything for granted in 2009.

Andrew said...

I can't find any sort of link to the interview, but I just overheard on MSNBC one Ronald M. DeFeo, CEO of construction company Terex, saying the number one priority for government infrastructure spending should be high-speed rail between major metropolitan areas.

We need more people like that saying those sort of things in the news, and Obama needs to be listening.

BruceMcF said...

One difference is that the Obama administration does not have to carry all the water on the issue ... Kerry already has a proposal, and there is the basis for an effective working partnership between the large California caucus in the House and the large group of Northeastern Senators.

And, of course, if individual Representatives and Senators figure a bill is likely to pass in any event, they have a strong incentive to focus on getting something for their district and their state, rather than focusing on fighting the bill and risking coming away empty handed.

When you have enough individual Senators or Representatives using the line or station that they "won" for their state or district as a bragging point, then they all gain a political stake in the CAHSR, as the highest profile HSR project, proceeding reasonably smoothly.

Of course, they have to be aware that it is something they can brag about, so the more grass roots support from constituents, the better.

James said...

Many many public works projects were built in the last depression. Maybe CHSR can be built in this depression. Schwarzenegger and the California houses are having a tough time getting a budget. Highway projects are threatened with shutting down even though they are supported by bonds partially because the state does not have a budget and it can not sell the bonds. So hopefully this will all get sorted out and government bonds will continue to be functional as the next million people lose their jobs. All we can do is keep trying and hopefully keep our jobs.

Unknown said...

Can you have a post encouraging people to vote in the now official moderator to question the president-elect on what he would commit to in terms high-speed (and other passenger rail) and to remind him that there is high enthusiasm for it?

There have already been a few questions posted:

Thank you

Tom said...

@ James - Our economy is certainly worse off than in previous downturns, but it's not time to call a it a depression just yet. That said, to help prevent a depression, major stimulous is needed for our economy, and HSR with all the construction jobs and permanent jobs associated with it (as well as the boost to commerce in general due to HSR) will certainly help. That said, it's too bad that it looks like 2011 is the start date for construction for CAHSR, which is a bit late to stimulate the economy. Seriously, one would hope that our economy would be turning around by then. Is there any way *something* could be started right away with CAHSR?

Rafael said...

@ Tom -

yes, tunnel construction in Pacheco Pass, Tehachapi Pass and Soledad Canyon isn't controversial and could begin quickly. So could the tunnel in SF, provided the bickering sides can agree on how it will be funded.

Tunneling tends to take longer than expected because the small-scale geology often causes problems.

Other components that could get an early start are the TTC station, the new SJ Diridon (which now also has to accommodate BART), LA Union Station (with run-through tracks) and Anaheim ARTIC. Fresno is a thornier issue because UPRR isn't playing ball on the notion of a joint freight corridor through the city on its ROW (cp. Alameda corridor).

Some money could be poured into the development of affordable and reliable terrestrial broadband internet access for HSR passengers, e.g. based on multiple WiMax (802.16e) channels. Caltrain successfully trialed such a system at 79mph but could not afford to implement it. Getting that up and running on all of the HSR feeder services would help build ridership (except Amtrak Coast Starlight between Salinas and SLO).

SNCF relies on geostationary satellites for its TGV WiFi service in the countryside, but that precludes latency-sensitive applications like video conferencing and multi-player games. If that sounds frivolous, consider that high ridership depends more on people being productive and/or entertained en route than it does on shaving off a few minutes of line haul time.

Another area for R&D investment is rail-wheel and aerodynamic noise reduction. Talgo (Spain) and the Japanese manufacturers are leaders in this area.

Achieving acceptable levels at speeds of e.g. 80mph through built-up areas would permit the operation of high speed cargo trains at night, not to mention sleeper trains between SF/Sacramento and San Diego some day.

Finally, the central maintenance facility, rumored to be sited at Castle Airport near Merced, could be constructed early. One issue with that is that the trainset vendor hasn't been chosen yet - Alstom and Talgo use articulated designs that require special liftgate equipment.

luis d. said...

Yeah, what I was wondering is if they could do anything NOW in terms of jobs. By 2011 we would hope that we weren't in this mess.

I think what could be done first is the work on the SF-SJ segment, grade seperating and electrifying it for Caltrain.

The problem is that no money can be spent until we have matching Federal, Private Funds. The thing we need to push for to get things moving is Federal funds. Once we have those we should have some Private Funds coming in with confidence. Even though we mentioned that Federal Funds will come in chunks, we need these chunks Immediately or Very Fast for our project to break ground and start repair work on the economy.

I'm sure if the CHSRA had more money they could work double time on their engineering work and we can get this thing started in two years instead of four (2011/2012).

Rafael said...

@ luis d -

I'm not 100% sure but I believe the $950 million reserved in AB3034 for HSR feeders, plus the $900 million available for completing planning and preliminary engineering do not require matching funds.

It's "only" the $8.1 billion reserved for actual construction of track segments that do. That does include tunneling and station construction, but perhaps not the maintenance facility. It will be needed for pre-qualifying trainset vendors, a step that arguably must happen before the bulk of the tracks can be laid.

Research on internet access and rail-wheel noise could also get started soon, though it's unclear if AB3034 provides enough vagueness to use any funds for that. The relatively small amount of money required might have to come from other sources, e.g. the internet portion of the stimulus bill, DOE, EPA, CARB, Caltrans, individual counties etc.

Perhaps the state assembly and senate could allow a modified definition of the segments so CHSRA can take advantage of federal HSR funds in HR2095, the Kerry-Specter bill and/or the upcoming stimulus bill to get cracking on those tunnels and stations after all.

Laying track and subsequent electrification does require more project-level planning, SF-SJ for example simply isn't ready to break ground yet (see Clem Tillier's excellent Caltrain HSR compatibility blog for details). At best, work could begin on selected grade separation projects relatively soon.

In the LOSSAN corridor, the priority should be to select and implement interoperable positive train control (PTC) to make it easier for FRA to grant that all-important "rule of special applicability" that will let CHSRA use off-the-shelf but non-compliant trainset technology from Europe or Asia.

Rafael said...

From our off-the-wall department: Baghdad is running passenger trains again, using Saddam's personal rail cars no less. How many cities in the US don't have any passenger train service at all?

Alon Levy said...

The US has between 3 and 5 metro areas larger than Baghdad's: NY, LA, Chicago, and possibly Washington-Baltimore and the Bay Area. All of these have passenger rail services.

Anonymous said...

without heavy rail commuter/regional service: Houston, Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Phoenix

Heavy rail (not including light rail or metro/subway) can be found:
NYC (LIRR, Metro, NJTransit)
Philadelphia-Trenton-Wilmington (Septa)
San Francisco/San Jose
Los Angeles
San Diego

Alon Levy said...

Atlanta has MARTA.