LaHood, Biden Meet With Governors on High-Speed Rail

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Vice President Biden met at the White House this afternoon with officials from 20 states in contention for funding as part of the Obama administration’s high-speed rail program.

midwest_rail_map_300x211.jpgThe high-speed Midwest Regional Rail Initiative’s proposed reach. (Photo: Michigan Messenger)

"This is how the interstate highway system started, folks," Biden told the governors, according to the pool report filed by the White House press corps. "It wasn’t like the Lord on the eighth day said — boom! — there’s
the interstate highway system."

The group included eight governors — from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia and Missouri — but not New York’s David Paterson, who’s taking some flak from a Democratic state legislator for his decision to focus on legislative priorities in Albany.

Applications are due this summer for the $8 billion in high-speed rail money that was added to the economic stimulus bill, and detailed guidance on that process is slated for release by month’s end.

It’s still unclear, though, how many projects are in line for a share of that pot, not to mention the passenger demand and matching-funds requirements that rail proposals would have to meet.

As Sarah pointed out in her Streetsblog Network post today, directing the money to the most high-demand areas remains a key concern for transportation planners.

Another unanswered question is whether Congress will sign on to the administration’s pitch for $5 billion in annual high-speed rail funding over the next five years. LaHood is headed to the House Appropriations Committee tomorrow morning, where part of his job will be to sell that long-term rail investment to his former colleagues on the Hill.

Meanwhile, the most well-represented corridor at the meeting appears to be the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which would link Chicago with St. Louis, the Detroit area, Wisconsin and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. In an April letter to LaHood, governors from that region estimated the cost of their high-speed rail corridor at $3.4 billion, using 3,000 miles of track that don’t require negotiations over rights-of-way.

Midwestern senators are also working the phones to ensure that freight rail doesn’t stand in the way of an expansion of high-speed passenger service. Will the Midwest initiative’s political might — both LaHood and the president are Illinoisans — help vault it ahead of the competition?

  • Paz

    It will certainly help the Midwest to have both Obama and LaHood in such important posts. However, I think that the Midwest is an extremly complicated proposal because it is going to pull from such a large area. The Keystone Corridor only has to deal with one state, the Midwest has at least half a dozen.

    The Midwest proposal would be smart to bring Pennsylvania and/or New York on board as well so there is a high speed connection between the East Coast and the Midwest. Pittsburgh or Buffalo could be that critical East-West link, though I am obviously biased to the Steel City.

  • From what I understand and see on the ground as a Chicagoan, the Midwest is in good shape right now becuase they have done the work. Specifically, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association has done an excellent job for the past several years fighting for incrementally better service that produces results politicians can see. Along the way, they have been more than aggressive about planting the seed about high speed rail. Their efforts are starting to pay off.

  • Paz:
    Adding Pittsburgh to that proposed network probably would be pretty expensive, considering that the entirety of the Midwest network proposed is on flat even ground and Western Pennsylvania is quite hilly and requires all manner of startling bridgework and terrain modification (at least to a Midwesterner) to run rail across it.

    Not that I wouldn’t appreciate being able to take the train between home in Milwaukee and school in Pittsburgh.

  • Paz,
    the way our senate works, the more states that will be benefiting from a project the higher the likelihood a project will be funded, so a “less complex” system like keystone corridor which benefits PA (2 guaranteed votes in the senate), is less likely to get mega-funding than an 8-state program (which has 16 senate votes, which is more than 25% of the votes needed to push it through).

  • The entire Midwest Network is estimated to cost $3.4 billion. Can you get the government to focus on such a tiny sum?

    By contrast, Wisconsin is planning to rebuild the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee, at an estimated cost of $2.3 billion.

  • correction,
    the project “involves nine Midwest states (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin)” (from MnDOT website). http://www.dot.state.mn.us/passengerrail/onepagers/midwest.html

    so thats 18 votes in the senate.

  • AlanHKG,
    I dont know how feasible it will be but you could run the high speed trains from kalamazoo to detroit through southern ontario to buffalo which is a relatively flat landscape. I don’t know if stopping for customs will slow down the trip much though.

  • Steve

    I think HSR for the Midwest would be nifty, but the problem is that Midwestern cities, outside Chicago, have basically no quality public transportation available. You can take the magic bullet train to Detroit or St. Louis, but once there, if your destination isn’t within walking distance of the train station, you’re screwed.

  • Goat314

    To Steve

    St. Louis has about 50 miles of light rail already. Not exactly screwed when you get there. Do some research before you start spewing ignorance.

  • @Steve: the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) are also on a pretty aggressive path with light rail right now. Both downtowns, the airport, the University of MN (50,000+ students), all four professional sport teams’ stadiums, the state capitol building, the Mall of America, and many of the regions largest suburbs are all either linked together by light rail, or will be within 5 years. High-speed rail (if this proposal really deserves that title) would definitely complement this growing metro transit network.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    California, baby.

  • Paz

    AlanKHG, it’s a good point, but it’s not as though there aren’t trains that do this already. And the terrain in Europe isn’t always level either, particularly in Germany and Austria.

    Joby, fair point but two details. One, the Keystone Corridor is almost half done already (it’s electrified from Harrsiburg to Philadelphia). Two, wouldn’t a 10-state proposal be even better in Congress?

  • @AlanKHG:

    The high-speed rail plan is designed to use existing right-of-way, which is already pretty flat, even when it goes through the mountains. There is plenty of right-of-way between Ohio and Pittsburgh, so extending the network into Pennsylvania, if that’s what wanted to do, would not break the bank.

    The suggestion of a route through Southern Ontario is interesting. When I was an undergraduate, long ago, I used to take the Wolverine (a definitely non-high-speed New York Central train) from Grand Central to Kalamazoo. The train cut from upstate New York to Michigan via Ontario. There were no scheduled stops in Canada, so there was no delay for Customs at the border.

    However, an Ontario route bypasses Cleveland and South Bend, so it’s probably less useful (and less attractive to at least four Senators) than a south-of-Lake-Erie route.

  • john

    There are a few miles of light rail in St Louis but most of it fails to link where visitors want to go like the Botanical Gardens, Zoo, Grants Farm, InBev-BUD, St Charles, etc. However it does serve the Arch, Bush, BJC-WashU and East St Louis. In addition, Metro severely overpaid for an Extension and the result is a major reduction in bus services and route frequency. Best thing to do to get around the Lou is to bike but the region is very anti-cycling. Even Metro eliminated the planned pedestrian-cycling path along the Extension.

    It would be nice though to have HSR to Chicago so the locals could learn something about creating a city that works.

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