Mica Touts Public-Private Northeast Corridor HSR In Grand Central Hearing

The House transportation committee meeting on the balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Photo: __
The House transportation committee meeting on the balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Photo: ##http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/Y-O5ivMn-BW/House+Holds+Field+Hearing+High+Speed+Rail##Chris Hondros/Getty Images.##

Sitting beneath the famous zodiac mural of Grand Central’s main concourse, with the rumble of commuters and trains in the background, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its first field hearing of the new session this morning. The topic was the future of high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor.

Chairman John Mica led the committee’s Republicans towards what appears to be their emerging message on high-speed rail: they’re for it, so long as it’s built through public-private partnerships and largely limited to the dense Boston-Washington corridor.

High-speed rail advocates and some Democrats seem to think the re-prioritization of the Northeast Corridor could be a good thing, though other Democrats remain committed to the Obama administration vision of a nationwide network. Disagreements over the proper roles of the public and private sectors, however, were somewhat more partisan and contentious.

The call to prioritize the Northeast Corridor — and therefore to stop spreading high speed rail dollars across the nation — earned support from across the political spectrum in the hearing, perhaps not surprising given the heavy representation of northeastern representatives.

Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who chairs the Railroads Subcommittee, called himself a strong rail supporter but attacked the Obama administration’s strategy so far. “There’s no better way to move large numbers of people than passenger rail and high-speed rail,” he said, telling the story of how improved service on Pennsylvania’s Keystone corridor had convinced him to ride the rails instead of driving. But, he continued, Obama “took that stimulus money and spread it too thinly across the nation.” He said that the President’s State of the Union promise to bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of Americans by 2036 was simply unrealistic and that starting on the Northeast Corridor would be smarter.

Across the aisle, New York City Representative Jerry Nadler agreed that high-speed rail spending shouldn’t be too diffuse, though he didn’t specifically criticize past administration spending. Americans need to be able to see something for their money, he argued.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, both witnesses at the hearing in their positions as co-chairs of the infrastructure advocacy organization Building America’s Future, agreed that future rail dollars needed to be more narrowly targeted. “We need to get real,” said Rendell. “The way we’re doing high-speed rail right now in America will amount to nothing.” The small amount that his state received, he argued, “was done just to say that we gave Pennsylvania some money, so that Senator Specter and Casey can’t be too mad.” (The rail dollars were allocated while Arlen Specter was still in office and before he was replaced by arch-conservative Pat Toomey, who is against federal funding for high-speed rail.)

Not everyone agreed that focusing on a few routes, and the Northeast Corridor in particular, makes sense, however. Ranking member Nick Rahall said in his opening statement that a national rail network ought to remain the focus. “After all,” the West Virginia Democrat said,” it was a national vision that led to the creation of the world’s most advanced highway and aviation networks.”

While there is surely a regional divide at work, it wasn’t a pure split. Ohio Republican Bob Gibbs praised his state’s new governor for killing its high-speed rail program but said that it might make more sense in the northeast, where air traffic is snarled with congestion and transit already feeds into rail stations.

Building a high-speed rail line along the Northeast Corridor carries some particular challenges. First, the lack of an environmental impact statement has stalled improvements so far, according to Petra Todorovich of America 2050. That spurred calls from some committee Republicans, including Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chair John Duncan (R-TN), to ease environmental laws.

High-speed rail advocates seemed open to at least speeding up the environmental review process. Todorovich said her group is asking Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to expedite an EIS for the corridor. Rendell agreed that the slow speed of the process will “drive you crazy” and suggested it could be faster.

Additionally, building high-speed rail through eight different states and the District of Columbia requires a high level of political coordination. Todorovich suggested the creation of a new public authority to cross state lanes.

Even as the committee debated where to prioritize high-speed rail, it also tackled the question of how and by whom it should be built. Although Amtrak has a $117 billion plan to build true high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor by 2040, Mica said that “Amtrak will never be capable of developing the corridor to its full potential.” The complex challenges of building the route, he said, “can only be addressed with the help of private sector expertise.”

Rahall, in contrast, defended Amtrak, which he called “one of America’s greatest assets.” Only now, with increased funding over the last two years, is Amtrak financially stable enough to turn its attention to the kind of big ideas included in its Northeast Corridor Plan.

Rep. Corrine Brown, the Florida Democrat who serves as ranking member on the Railroads Subcommittee, tried to focus attention on Amtrak’s chronic underfunding. “We’ve invested a lot of money in the highway system: $1.3 trillion,” said Brown. “Just $6 billion or $7 billion in passenger rail.” And under Bush, she said, “every budget that arrived to Congress was zeroed out for Amtrak.”

Of course, the debates over public-private partnerships and over prioritizing the Northeast Corridor can’t be completely separated. Because the Northeast Corridor already turns a profit and has a large ridership, said United State High Speed Rail Association VP Thomas Hart, it’s the route most attractive to the private sector.

  • AlexB

    Interesting to compare this to the RPA report that was released today outlining how the region’s airports could be enlarged (at great cost). If they built a brand new high speed rail line from Boston to Washington, would they have to expand the airports?

  • AlexB: I’m not sure. If we make the reasonable assumption that HSR will decimate intra-NEC air travel, then New York will see a very small reduction in air traffic, Boston a slightly larger one, and Providence a huge one (around 40% of passengers). Some expansions might still be necessary.

    However, depending on which route is chosen and how easy it is to add stops, HSR could be useful in setting up relief airports, like Philadelphia for New York (it would be about 40 minutes away).

  • kevd

    I think I’d prefer to be 5 or 10 years behind California and Florida on this one.
    NEC HSR is a massive undertaking requiring a completely new right of way from Boston to Washington.
    Lets see what mistakes they make in Cali, and try to learn from them. I don’t trust the American government to learn from anyone in Europe or Japan.

  • Was anyone from Streetsblog at the round table discussion that followed at the MTA boardroom? I was there for the whole thing, but I was unfortunate enough to be seated near a lot of disruptive activity by staffers and security guards, so I couldn’t focus on a lot of the discussion.

    One of the comments that I did hear, which came from Petra Todorovich of America 2050, was that a lot of the inefficiencies/delays caused by EIS (and many of the lawsuits generated by them) are due to dishonesty on the part of the project sponsor during the review process. This is a key point, that honest participation in the environmental review process will lead to less project delays and lawsuits.

  • JJJ

    I guess these people have never been to California, and take it from Hollywood that it’s all 12 lane highways and everyone drives. Probably never heard of the Capitol Corridor or the Pacific Surfliner.

    As for privatization, seems to be the classic republican case of privatized profits and socialized loses. Let’s run government as a business! But if it’s profitable, it needs to be given away!

  • kevd: on the contrary, nearly two-thirds of the NEC is already high-speed track requiring only relatively minor facelifts. New ROW is not required – at worst, two-track sections would have to be four-tracked, with segregation of high-speed and commuter services.

  • LazyReader

    I’ve read articles that said, private companies have backed out of these investment plans or their simply not interested at all. I’m wondering what my incentive to take HSR is when I could probably take the bus for far less money. While it may take longer overall compared to a train, you save a lot of dollars per hour. Over a dozen existing private bus companies [Megabus, Greyhound] exist to take people from city to city. Their not demanding 117 billion dollars to buy fancy new gold plated buses. Greyhound may be more pricey than the others but offers the services such as internet, electric power plug-in, ample legroom. If for instance I wanted to go from Baltimore to Boston, it would cost me 3-6 dollars on Megabus, 55-66 dollars on Greyhound, and 157-379 dollars on Amtraks “Acela”. It would only cost 90-154 dollars on the slower moving [normal train] the “Northeast Regional”. The bus only takes 2 hours longer but I’m saving over 25 dollars per hour not riding the train.

  • JJJ

    Lazyreader, amtrak prices based on demand. Meaning, if the acela costs 150, it’s because at that price, 85% of the train will be full. You may not value your time at $25 an hour, but someone getting paid $90 an hour certainly does.

  • LazyReader

    Counting only scheduled intercity bus service, buses move about 2.5 times as many passenger miles as Amtrak. I’ve checked Amtrak fares; the lowest price I managed to find while looking was 68 dollars [for the ”Northeast Regional”; a non high-speed rail route]. The Acela’s price was typically always 90 dollars or more for one ticket. 60 bucks will get me ten Megabus seats. So you’d pay 90-300 dollars on Amtrak tickets, when you could buy busfare with pocket change? If time was really your priority, you’d probably just fly there. Amtrak has only 24 departures per day where as individual bus companies have over a hundred. Overall the Acela really doesn’t go that fast and has to slow down often due to noise complaints in neighborhoods or gradients to deal with or quality of rail track. The ”Northeast Regional” may be slower but its cheaper, has more stops and is more widely used than Acela. There’s actually two types of high-speed rail. From existing or from scratch. Taking existing rail usually owned by freight services to which they shar and upgrading it so trains can go faster to up to 110 miles per hour at the cost of 5 to 10 million dollars per mile. However many freight companies have said they don’t even want trains going that fast. Companies like CSX and Santa Fe said they dont want trains going anymore than 90 miles per hour. Norfolk Southern said they dont trains going any more than 79 milers per hour. Only Union Pacific said they’re willing to have 110 mile per hour trains co-existing with their freight trains. If you want anything faster than that you have to build entirely from scratch. In flatland it costs minimum of 30 million dollars per mile and as much as 100 million dollars per mile or more in the mountains; not to mention the costs building bridges or tunnels so they dont have to share track or slow down. So the cost of building from scratch over 500 hundred miles of rail track from Washington DC to Maine could build a whole lot of bus lanes with that kind of money and move a helluva lot more people.

  • LazyReader

    I don’t get paid 25 an hour [I wish I was] I’m pointing out the bus costs 15-20 dollars per passenger at most compared to Amtrak which costs over 3 times more just to start. The 2 additional hours of travel time is worth the money I dont have to spend.

  • If you book two weeks in advance, Amtrak will charge you $49 for NY-DC. The walk-up fare is higher, but it’s also higher on the buses.

    Also, when you compared Amtrak and intercity buses, did you do so nationwide or on the NEC? Amtrak is a much better proposition in the Northeast than in the rest of the country. I’m actually interested in seeing how well Amtrak competes with Megabus and Bolt in the Northeast.

    As for the costs of upgrading the NEC, don’t forget that 100% of the track is owned by passenger railroads, most of it by Amtrak and the rest by commuter railroads. And most of the route is four-tracked, including all segments with heavy commuter traffic running more slowly than intercity rail. Amtrak’s proposal is completely insane, and about an order of magnitude more expensive than necessary.

  • LazyReader

    My main focus was on the Northeast Corridor. Acela is one of the few profitable Amtrak routes. And despite the billions they’ve already spent, they only managed to capture less than six percent of the travel market in the Northeast. Thats the best they could do. Still they wanna build high-speed rail everywhere. And in California and Florida or other places it may only capture less than one percent of the travel market. If Amtrak is gonna have trains zipping along the rails at 150 mph or more, they are gonna have to build brand new tracks…..from scratch at an enormous cost. And the energy their supposed to save is marginal to the enormous amount of energy spent building new infrastructure. Even before it pays off, they forget the rails are gonna need constant maintenance and further energy spent rebuilding every 10 years or so to keep it moving so fast. Buses are far far more flexible and can easily adapt to declines in passengers. Bus fleets expand or shrink to deal with influx of passengers and do so on a day to day basis. Bus routes can be re-routed to accommodate where people live and work. Trains can’t, there built as extremely rigid models; declines only adapt by raising fares and their not going to skip a station even if it has no passengers. Your just better off as a community or town not building trains by not having to spend millions or billions of dollars and going heavily into debt.

  • @LazyReader, but that’s just the whole point of “investment,” is you go down by some measures (but not EVERY measure) before you go up. There are growing pains in any worthwhile endeavor. You spend your $100,000 opening that restaurant you’ve always been wanting to open, and you don’t see a profit over that $100,000 in seed money for another year or so. And relevant to the NYC field hearing, which I attended, several Republicans criticized use of the word “investment” as opposed to “spending” as a liberal talking point and ploy to cover the true nature of their positions. But it’s not a talking point, it really is investment.

    As for the bus argument, you point to the “rigidity” of relying on rail, but there’s nothing more rigid than being subject to congestion on our highways (and not only subject to it, but as a passenger in a bus, you are CONTRIBUTING toward said congestion) and the limitations imposed by severe weather. Sure, while Amtrak certainly has its delays during inclement weather, those delays are not a function of their service being rail. Rail is supposed to operate quite normally under inclement weather. On the other hand, such delays for buses ARE a function of what they are. I don’t want to belabor the point, but four rubber tires on asphalt have certain insurmountable obstacles during inclement weather, no matter how well the highways have been plowed, or the technological advances made in said automobile’s drive train.

    Going further with your calling rail a rigid model, you need to look at the bigger picture. It’s the lack of rigidity in the built environment that helped get us into the economic recession, and will curb our ability to emerge successfully from the recession if we don’t adopt some of this “rigidity,” and adopt it SOON. You mention that bus fleets expand and shrink to deal with the variation of passengers day to day, and bus routes can be re-routed to accommodate where people live and work. Aside from the fact that the existing rail in the Northeast Corridor already accommodates where people live and work (a good 20% or so of the total American population lives along the corridor), and expansion of service would only add much needed redundancy, accommodating certain types of existing live/work patterns is exactly what rail is meant to rail against (excuse the awful pun, I couldn’t resist). These patterns have been much too liberal and disorganized. The principles of “smart growth,” to which most if not all HSR boosters subscribe (or at least should), are about reigning in these patterns that you say buses accommodate. And the happy irony of it all is that this rigidity, once implemented holistically, becomes anything but rigid in a literal sense.

  • LazyReader

    The problem with the “Big Picture” is that it’s made up of Pixels with individual needs. A majority of Americans agree that high-speed rail is something they want, AS LONG AS SOMEBODY ELSE PAYS FOR IT.

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=3581

    If the Northeast wants its high speed rail then fine. It may prove to be partially profitable (some Amtrak routes do profit, but many have poor ridership and are huge money pits) Then the states can pay for it (the states that the rail traverses through). Infact, let the states take over transportation funding altogether for each of their own needs. We can eliminate federal taxes on transportation and transfer it to the states. Not one federal dollar would ever pay for roads, rails, runways, or bus lanes (There would be no federal dollars). By doing that the federal government can’t stick their hands in the cookie jar. The revenues wont be tampered with it or redistributed. Maryland money wont be used to pay for New York’s roads nor Mississippi money paying for Northeast rail. They pay for what they want. Regions of states can form coalitions to deal with bridges or tunnels on their borders.

    As for calling it an investment……The plan calls for spending $117 billion in the 427-mile corridor, (and billions more for other corridors) for an average cost of nearly $275 million per mile. That’s almost ten times Florida’s projected cost of $30 million per mile for its program and close to three times California’s projected cost of about $95 million per mile. The feds want to allocate the money for rail, and people in Texas, California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, etc will be paying for something they cant possibly use by paying for the Northeast rail corridor. Unless of course they fly to the Northeast (which flying would take them directly to those major cities anyway) assuming they had a reason to.

    The High-speed rail scheme they have in California is a financial Boondoggle waiting to happen. A proposal in a state thats practically bankrupt. Pouring too many billions of dollars down this high-speed drain (get it drain / train). High-speed rail is slower than flying, overall less practical than cars, and far more expensive than the two, so it won’t increase mobility or save energy or the planet. While high tech rail may seem revolutionary….so was the Concorde Jet. Although actual planes were built and regular services maintained for years which operated at a slight profit, the income from only 20 planes they had, barely made a dent in the actual cost of the project. In this case, by the early 1970s it had already become painfully obvious that the advantages of supersonic flight were failed to compete with the lower fares made possible by slower but much more cost-effective planes. So they turned them into limousines with the best meals and wines and it served only a few very limited corridors.

    http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=4372

    We live in a society where few people are periodic on a daily basis. They don’t actually travel from point A to point B anymore. They go to from point A-1 to B-6 perhaps on Monday. Come Wednesday its A-3 to B-62. We have millions of people from thousands of origins traveling to thousands of destinations, and you cant just build rail tracks to all those places.

  • LazyReader is right. Don’t wait for California’s HSR, because it never will be built. Only the Federal government is throwing money down this rathole. No private investor will invest in CHSR because the 2008 proposition California voters barely passed prohibits the state from subsidizing the system, which means it also can’t guarantee profits for any private investors, none of whom, not surprisingly, have come forward in the last two years. If the ban on a state subsidy wasn’t in the 2008 proposition, it never would have passed. Every transportation system in California is in the red, and the Obama administration chooses to waste money on this white elephant. Very disappointing to an Obama supporter like me.
    http://cc-hsr.org/assets/pdf/CHSR-Financial_Risks-101210-D.pdf

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