State DOT Official, Rail Exec Talk High-Speed Rail Infighting, Bureaucracy

The push for dedicated U.S. high-speed rail funding began anew yesterday with the launch of a campaign aimed at securing $4 billion from Congress for next year's projects -- but hours before that event, federal and state transport officials joined private-sector players for a discussion that highlighted the political challenges facing successful development of fast inter-city rail networks.

7_15_08_high_speed_rail.jpgTaiwanese high-speed rail, above, opened for business in 2007 -- less than a decade after final contracts were awarded. (Photo: Streetsblog LA)

The discussion, sponsored by the pro-rail group America 2050, focused largely on recommendations for the National Rail Plan that the U.S. DOT is expected to unveil this summer. Senators from both parties warned Obama administration aides last month that a more detailed vision for inter-city rail would be needed in order to win passage of significant new funding.

Frank Busalacchi, secretary of the Wisconsin state DOT -- which is moving ahead with a Madison-Milwaukee link after winning an $810 million federal grant earlier this year -- urged U.S. DOT officials to incorporate specific plans for a long-term revenue source into its rail plan.

Such fiscal certainty is essential for states that must line up equipment providers years in advance, he said: "You can't start building a house until you have enough money to buy shingles for the roof."

But Busalacchi also acknowledged the rise of political infighting over high-speed rail, which recently came to a head in his state with conservative groups running ads against vulnerable Democratic lawmakers who support new train service.

"One of the problems we have as a country is that we all continue to fight with each other. ... We spend a lot of our time defending this [$810 million] grant," he said, as critics charge that "it's going to cost taxpayers money because you're subsidizing the line."

Meanwhile, the Wisconsinite noted wryly, U.S. taxpayers have long subsidized road projects without any political backlash.

Busalacchi's observations were echoed by Bruno Maestri, a senior lobbyist for the freight railroad Norfolk Southern. "Even at the U.S. DOT, we see fighting," Maestri said, adding that his company has "been shovel-ready for months" on one federally funded rail project that has languished due to conflicting statutes that govern highway spending (Title 23 of the U.S. code) and rail spending (Title 49).

If high-speed rail can clear political hurdles on the federal and local level, however, it has the potential to set the stage for future national objectives that govern all modes of transportation, according to Amtrak vice president for policy Stephen Gardner.

"Hopefully it's a model-setting activity," Gardner told fellow panelists yesterday, citing the importance of local transit connections in planning for inter-city train service. "There are many who feel the time has come to look holistically across the entire sector, not just surface [transport] ... and manage it like we know what we're doing."