USDOT Tries to Resuscitate the HSR Dreams Congress Wants to Bury

High-speed rail has had a rough go of it lately. The House refused to give it a dime for next year, while the Senate only managed to allocate a fraction of what the president wanted. President Obama stuck some money back in via his jobs package, but it already seems clear that the package won’t pass as proposed, and we know high-speed rail is the always first for the chopping block.

Despite innumerable setbacks, progress is still being made on high-speed and intercity rail. Photo credit: Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corporation.

Meanwhile, if you look at USDOT, the well of rail funding just seems to keep on giving.

“They just keep cranking it out,” said Andy Kunz, president of the US High-Speed Rail Association. “Even when you think all the money’s all spent, they pull more money out of a hat.”

It didn’t just come out of a hat, of course. It came from the stimulus money, which is still giving, nearly three years later. Nearly the whole $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail in the stimulus has now been given out, thanks in part to USDOT’s energetic allocations these last few months – including re-allocating money returned by Florida, whose governor decided the state would be better off without high-speed rail.

Yonah Freemark writes in The Transport Politic that the Department of Transportation has been “pushing grants out of the federal government’s hands as quickly as possible so that they can not be rescinded.”

In September alone, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for intercity rail upgrades nationwide: $149 million for New York State, $116 million for New England, $49 million for Texas, $48 million for North Carolina and Virginia, $35 million for the Northeast Corridor, $31 million for Washington State, and $13 million for Oregon, among others. Earlier this summer, hundreds of millions of dollars were appropriated to California and the Northeast. Unless states turn back the money, unlikely considering that the projects have gotten so far and their pro-rail sponsors, these funds cannot be taken back by Congress.

It’s a good strategy. Big pots of money, lying unused, are tempting bait for budget-cutters in Congress — and right now there are a lot of people looking for potential cuts, from the super committee on down. But if there’s just loose change left over, it won’t make much of a dent and probably isn’t worth monkeying with — as much as Republicans would like the chance to say they’re cutting the deficit by cutting money from the high-speed rail “boondoggle.”

So money is flowing out the DOT door. Still, Freemark is skeptical about how much progress these grants really indicate:

It’s worth questioning how ready most of these states are to use these funds now that they have them, or how quickly they’ll be able to get construction started. The first high-speed rail grants were announced in January 2010; other than the project to upgrade tracks between Chicago and St. Louis, has any major construction begun?

There has been some construction on other lines that got grants that are more “intercity passenger rail” than actual “high-speed rail” — improvements that are welcome, but that won’t bring speeds into “high-speed” territory.

Ken Orski, who’s always happy to sound the death knell for high-speed rail in his Innovation Briefs newsletter, said this week that “none of the grants will help to bring true “high-speed” rail service to America.” He said the administration is “continuing its practice of scattering money far and wide rather than focusing it on one or two worthwhile projects” and that “it remains to be seen how quickly the recipient states will put these funds to work— and what kind of service improvements these grants will bring about.”

Many high-speed rail advocates have joined Orski in criticizing the administration’s strategy for disbursing the funds. Many agreed with House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica the money should have gone exclusively toward the Northeast Corridor to first build one successful model for high-speed rail, and then try to build off of that in other corridors with sufficient population densities, congestion, and other key factors.

Kunz admits that initially, he was one of those criticizing the administration.

“I was hoping it would go into two or three corridors,” said Kunz. “But the one great thing about trickling out the money in dribs and drabs all over the country is that you’ve got the whole country fired up about high-speed rail. There are 30 or so states that are all getting fired up; they’ve got people on the DOT staff planning out rail projects. In terms of launching a program, and getting lots of people in the country in on it and moving forward on it, there was no better strategy. But as far as getting a true high-speed rail system built, that’s going to have to come from the next pot of money.”

Orski predicts that there won’t be a “next pot,” at least for a while. He says it’s the beginning of the end of the administration push for HSR in the fact of “a fiscally conservative Congress, a largely indifferent public and a skeptical, risk-averse investment community.”

But not everyone sees it that way. Aside from the three high-profile governors who rejected federal rail funds, dozens more have been clamoring for federal help building a 21st century high-speed rail system and to create jobs in their states.

Not only is a “next pot of money” possible, Kunz says – it’s inevitable. The naysayers, he says, are just puppets of the oil industry. “They’re trying to kill this thing, and say it’s dead, and kill the funding and everything,” he said. “But the reality is that we don’t have any other way to move Americans in the 21st century other than electric high-speed rail. We’re not going to be finding another Saudi Arabia.”

Sure, given the setbacks in Congress and the cost-cutting atmosphere that’s taken hold right now, prospects might look dim. “Right now it all looks shaky and sketchy,” Kunz said, “but in another year or two or three, we’ll probably have five or six of these projects underway around the country. And as soon as a few of them open, it’ll snowball like crazy.”