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Posts from the "High-speed rail" Category

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Train Maker Sues Wisconsin for $66 Million for Canceling Rail Project

Train maker Talgo is suing the state of Wisconsin for $65.9 million as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s decision to cancel passenger rail plans connecting Madison to Milwaukee.

Train maker Talgo is suing Wisconsin for $66 million over terminated contracts. Image: L.A. Times

Talgo claims that Wisconsin’s termination of contracts to build trains for the corridor resulted in $20 million in losses for the company, which has a manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. If the contract had been executed as planned, the company expected to earn $30 million in profits instead, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

In all, Talgo is seeking $65.9 million to cover $18.6 million in liquidated debt, as well as costs for labor, insurance, legal fees, testing that it says should have been paid by the state. The total includes other damages, including the cost to the firm’s reputation from state officials “continually defaming” it.

Walker was part of a group of Republican governors who refused federal grants for passenger rail projects following the 2010 elections. Walker said the state couldn’t afford to operate the trains, which would have cost the state as little as $7.5 million a year. Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin is currently spending $1.7 billion on a single interchange.

The Tampa Tribune recently reported that, according to a Florida lawmaker, Governor Rick Scott’s refusal of federal rail funds was part of a coordinated strategy by Republican governors to batter President Obama.

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Streetsblog’s Brand-New Podcast: Episode 1

Behold, Streetsblog’s brand-new podcast! In what we aim to turn into a recurring feature, Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and I recently chatted about the week’s news in livable streets, urbanism, and sustainable transportation. The topics are drawn from Jeff’s excellent daily compendium of transportation and planning links, The Direct Transfer, and from stories we’re tracking at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. It’s a treat for me to get back to producing audio — I was a radio reporter before joining Streetsblog.

This podcast is still very much in beta — we haven’t even settled on a name for it yet (suggestions welcome). But we want to share it with you and get your feedback and ideas about where to take it.

This week, Jeff and I discussed whether regional planning matters, the odd timing of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reject federal high-speed rail funds, and drawing fantasy maps for the transit and bike infrastructure your city needs. Have a listen, let us know what you think, and join the conversation in the comments.

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Can California HSR Learn From Spain’s Fatal Train Crash?

Stills from a video. Image: Time

The Spanish train crash in Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 people last week has sparked questions about whether high-speed rail is safe. In fact, it’s among the safest ways to travel, and technology that already exists can make the type of human error that led to tragedy in Spain nearly a non-issue. Future high-speed rail in California will be equipped with that technology.

The driver of the Spanish high-speed rail train that crashed, 52-year-old Francisco José Garzón Amo, took a turn at more than twice the legal speed — 190 kilometers an hour (118 mph) instead of 80 (50 mph). He should have applied the brakes two-and-a-half miles before the curve but, he says, he experienced a “lapse of concentration” and thought it was a different curve. The train derailed and slammed into a concrete retaining wall.

Now that the train’s black box has been uncovered, we know more about why his concentration was compromised. Garzón was on the phone with RENFE, the train company, getting instructions for the train’s final stop in Ferrol, a small city in the northwestern corner of Spain. It appears from the black box tape that he may have also been rustling maps “or some other similar paper document.”

Train operators in Spain are allowed to use the phone while on the job and are in fact equipped with a work phone, though a Renfe spokeswoman said Wednesday a driver shouldn’t answer the phone unless it’s safe to do so.

Garzón was “provisionally” charged Sunday night with “79 counts of manslaughter and numerous offences of bodily harm, all of them committed through professional recklessness.” Sixty-six people remain in the hospital, with 15 of them listed in “critical condition,” according to a EuroWeeklyNews story from this morning. The already horrific death toll could easily rise.

The train was traveling the Madrid-Ferrol line, which combines high-speed and conventional track. According to journalist Lisa Abend, writing in Time, “railways officials took pains to point out both that the crash was a result of human error and that it occurred” on the conventional track, not the special AVE high-speed rail track. Those parts of the track are monitored constantly for speed and a traffic management system can override the driver if it detects a problem, similar to the positive train control technology that Congress has mandated on all U.S. tracks and trains by the end of 2015.

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Another Swing (and a Miss) From Anderson Cooper’s Show on High-Speed Rail

My apologies, readers: Anderson Cooper did another segment slandering high-speed rail last month and it’s taken me this long to bring it to your attention.

And the truth is, I don’t mean to hammer on Anderson Cooper. His “Keeping Them Honest” series has done some good work recently, looking into the IRS scandal and the failure of law enforcement to investigate rape cases. But why he insists on targeting the nation’s high-speed rail program — a good program showing excellent results – as a national “boondoggle” is beyond me.

Part Three, aired June 14, examines the California high-speed rail project, which it snarkily calls the “crown jewel” and the “best hope” of the federal rail effort. And it’s about time Cooper’s program finally turns to California, after wasting time kvetching about good little projects in Vermont and Washington state. If they wanted to take a look at what’s going on with high-speed rail in America, I said at the time, they should look at California. And now, they have.

The problem is that Cooper (played in this episode by John King) and reporter Drew Griffin demand instant gratification when megaprojects like these take many years.

Griffin notes that California voters overwhelmingly approved a bond measure for “a bullet train connecting Los Angeles with San Francisco in a little more than two hours,” but then complains that “like many high-speed rail projects across the country, it hasn’t happened yet.”

Certainly, the California project has gotten bogged down in many political and financial controversies. Cost estimates have vacillated, legal challenges have been overcome, and along the way, the project has lost a good many supporters. But the fact that the 432-mile rail line “hasn’t happened yet” — less than five years after the bond measure passed — is not one of its flaws. The first 130-mile segment in the Central Valley is set to begin construction this summer, with a target completion date of December 2017. The full San Francisco-to-LA trip won’t be possible until 2029, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

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Senate Offers a More Multi-Modal 2014 Transportation Budget Than the House

Last week, a House panel envisioned some big cuts to next year’s transportation budget. TIGER and high-speed rail would get nothing, Amtrak would get slashed, and ixnay on all that green “livability” crap. (And that’s practically a quote.)

The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state inspired the Senate to include a $500 million program for bridge repair in its 2014 budget. Photo: CNN

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted this morning on the budget its own transportation subcommittee put together, and the end product couldn’t have been more different. Where the House allowed for $44 billion in discretionary spending, the Senate wants to budget $54 billion. To hell with the Ryan budget and to hell with the sequester, too.

Many experts see all this budgeting as an exercise in futility, however. In recent years, the House and Senate have been so unable to see eye to eye on budgeting that they’ve passed a series of continuing resolutions, basically freezing current budget levels in place. That looks like a likely outcome for 2014, as well. That’s not the worst thing in the world, since the budget that’s been frozen in place since 2011 contains funding for TIGER, sustainability grants, high-speed rail and other important discretionary programs.

Still, the appropriations process is a useful time when each chamber shows its hand. And what we learned is that the Senate is still far more willing than the House to invest in transportation infrastructure, especially infrastructure that could help shepherd the country toward a less car-dependent future.

Under the Senate plan, not only would U.S. DOT award the full $474 million for the fifth round of TIGER grants (the House would take away half of that), another $550 million would be allotted for round six. (Once overhead is taken out, that would probably mean about $520 million for grants.)

The Senate’s been lukewarm on high-speed rail lately, refusing to zero out the program like the House but also not throwing its full support behind the president’s vision of giving 80 percent of Americans access to HSR within 25 years (though even Obama doesn’t mention that goal anymore). The subcommittee allocated $100 million for what it’s now calling high-performance passenger rail grants. With people like Anderson Cooper bellyaching when sound, effective rail grants still don’t bring speeds above 110 mph, it probably wasn’t a bad idea to change the rhetoric from “speed” to “performance.” Still, the Senate’s allocation pales in comparison to the president’s $40 billion budget request for high-speed rail over five years.

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“The Twilight of the Appropriations Process”: House GOP Gets Its Knives Out

Constrained by Paul Ryan’s budget and the sequester, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD passed a $44 billion spending bill for 2014 – 15 percent lower than 2013 enacted levels. The bill contains $15.3 billion in discretionary appropriations for the Department of Transportation, also 15 percent below enacted 2013 levels and amounting to about two-thirds of the president’s request. It passed the subcommitee this morning on a voice vote.

Rep. David Price (D-NC): "Are we totally helpless here?"

The budget would eliminate both TIGER and high-speed rail funding (as have all House-passed budgets in recent memory), cut Amtrak’s subsidy by a third, and bring HUD’s Community Development Block Grants back to Ford administration levels. While the cuts are steep, as in past years they are unlikely to be enacted, given Democratic control of the Senate.

At today’s markup, even subcommittee chair Tom Latham (R-IA) admitted that cutting $7.7 billion was “extremely challenging” and “not an easy task.” No other Republican spoke at all. While Latham’s official statement upon the introduction of the bill said that it was crafted “in a bipartisan fashion,” he admitted during the markup that he could thank Ranking Member Ed Pastor only for good “communication” rather than “cooperation” on the bill, since the top committee Democrat wasn’t “a huge fan of the product.”

Across the board, Democrats disavowed the bill and the process that begat it. While many acknowledged that Latham had received “an impossible allocation” from Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget Committee, Democrats made it clear that the 15 percent cut was “unacceptable.” The appropriation is $4.4 billion lower than the amount allowed by the sequester.

Nita Lowey, ranking member of the full Appropriations Committee, said this budget “impairs the economic recovery,” and Illinois Democrat Mike Quigley said the bill “defies financial common sense,” not to mention the committee’s “moral obligations” to preserve the social safety net. David Price of North Carolina said it was “a grossly inadequate bill” that goes “way beyond the normal range of disagreements and difficulties with appropriations.” He mused that it could be “the twilight of the appropriations process.”

“I’ve never known us to be in this kind of institutional crisis,” Price said. “Are we totally helpless here? I know that’s what we hear, that we’re boxed in by sequestration, that we’re boxed in by the absence of a budget agreement.”

Price suggested the need for leadership “perhaps outside the conventional channels,” implying that they, the appropriators — who understand better than anyone the damaging cuts that are necessitated by such an austere budget — need to take the reins back from the deficit hawks in the Budget Committee.

Highway and transit programs maintain their MAP-21-authorized levels of $41 billion and $8.6 billion, respectively, in the appropriations bill. That represents a $557 million increase for highways over this year. These programs come out of the Highway Trust Fund and so aren’t included in the appropriations bill’s top-line numbers.

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Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on Columbia River Crossing Transit

From the beginning of today’s hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee made it clear they weren’t going to let Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last appearance before them be an easy one. While the hearing’s purpose was to examine the department’s budget request, the tough questions LaHood fielded on the budget were nothing compared to the fight one lawmaker picked about the Columbia River Crossing.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler wants to take light rail out of the Columbia River Crossing.

Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham derided the administration request for $50 billion for “immediate transportation investments” as “a proposal we’ve seen three times before” which, like the 2009 stimulus package, is “not paid for or offset by reductions elsewhere.” He dismissed the plan to pay for transportation with war savings as “dubious,” saying, “Many members hope that the drawdown of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide an opportunity to reduce spending and the deficit, and not serve as excuse for even more spending.”

LaHood told Latham he “can’t have it both ways.”

“The first two years I was in this job you all criticized us for not coming up with a way to fund transportation,” LaHood said. “For the last two years, after receiving criticism for the first two years, for no funding, we’ve come up with a funding mechanism.”

Even worse than defending a gimmicky pay-for, LaHood tied himself in knots promising the U.S. DOT “has never promoted building anything to get anywhere faster.” He defended this position when it came to the Columbia River Crossing in the Portland area, which Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler raked him over the coals for, and even for high-speed rail, which he pledged was not actually about increasing speeds. A weird position, indeed.

Latham noted that the administration budget proposal included $40 billion for rail and wondered when the administration might send over a draft proposal of the rail reauthorization those numbers are based on. He reminded LaHood that the administration never actually sent a draft surface transportation reauthorization.

LaHood tried to turn the tables on Latham, saying the president was busy with guns, immigration and the sequester, and when Congress does its work on those three issues, Obama will bring out his bold plans for transportation. LaHood has made this argument before, and it’s one I find perplexing. Isn’t that why there are Cabinet secretaries, with thousands of people working under them? No one at DOT is working on guns and immigration, but I bet someone there has a pretty good handle on their plans for the next rail bill.

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Obama’s 2014 Transpo Budget Calls for Higher Spending, HSR

The Obama Administration has put forward an opening bid in what are sure to be contentious 2014 budget negotiations, issuing a solidly progressive transportation budget that calls for increased overall spending and continued investment in passenger rail.

The 2014 transportation budget proposal put forward by the Obama Administration calls for increased infrastructure spending and continued focus on passenger rail. Image: Christian Science Monitor

The $76 billion transportation budget would represent a 5.5 percent, or $4 billion, spending increase over 2012 levels.

In addition, the president repeated his call for $50 billion in stimulus-style funding in 2014. Of this one-time funding infusion, $40 billion would be reserved for “fix-it-first” projects aimed at bringing the nation’s roads, bridges, and transit systems into a state of good repair. The other $10 billion would be offered on a competitive basis to “innovative” projects, through programs like TIGER.

The $50 billion infrastructure-spending stimulus is a proposal we’ve seen Obama float several times in the last few years. In the 2014 budget proposal it is again packaged as a jobs program.

“These investments would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the first few years and in industries suffering from protracted unemployment,” the document says.

The administration’s budget also demonstrates that the president has not abandoned his high-speed rail ambitions. The budget proposes $40 billion for passenger rail programs over five years, aimed at making rail more widely accessible and convenient. It’s essentially his outline for a passenger rail (PRIIA) reauthorization. He even stuck to his goal of providing 80 percent of Americans with rail access, though years of funding setbacks have tempered his ambitions some — he now pledges that 80 percent of the population will have “convenient access to a passenger rail system, featuring high-speed service” — not that they’ll all have high-speed rail service.

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Feds Lay Out Wide-Ranging Visions for the Future of the NE Corridor

A report released this week by the Federal Railroad Administration outlines 15 possible ways forward for the Northeast Corridor, ranging from building fully separate tracks to accommodate 220 mph bullet trains to simply maintaining the existing infrastructure in a state of good repair.

The Northeast Corridor, stretching roughly 457 miles between Boston and Washington, DC, is one of the world's most widely ridden rail corridors. The Federal Railroad Administration has put forward 15 investment proposals for the route looking toward 2040.

The “preliminary alternatives” were laid out in a report called “NEC Future,” which FRA is using to prompt discussions on the future of rail service along the corridor. Each alternative will be evaluated on its environmental and transportation impacts. FRA will then choose a “preferred alternative” to pursue.

The first several proposals laid out by FRA — the “resource-constrained” options — show trains maxing out at about 160 mph, like they do now. A state of good repair would be maintained. Investment would be limited to accommodating projected ridership increases through 2040. No new routes would be constructed.

Meanwhile, in the middle-range investment scenarios, “Alternative 4″ calls for increasing capacity at all choke points, including the construction or acquisition of “express bypass tracks,” to allow overtaking of slower trains. This alternative would also tackle “cost effective” trip-time improvement on projects “that also increase capacity,” according to the report.

Among the less “resource constrained” proposals is where we see a call for transformative new investment. “Alternative 15″ calls for a new right-of-way along the 457 miles from Boston to Washington, which would allow for a “major increase in capacity.” This proposal would include new routes off the main spine of the corridor, serving outlying areas like Long Island. This proposal also calls for a “super express” line running all the way from Portland, Maine to Washington, DC, along with two additional local routes along the length of the corridor, for shorter regional and inter-city trips.

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Another Slanted High-Speed Rail Story From Anderson Cooper

Not one to back away from a terrible argument, CNN’s Anderson Cooper is sticking with his series exposing the “boondoggle” of federal high-speed rail funding. In a segment aired Monday night, he and reporter Drew Griffin hammered away yet again at their argument that high-speed rail has been a waste of money. Under the tagline “Keeping Them Honest,” Cooper and Griffin hope to raise public ire about the taxpayer money “dumped” into a program sold as high-speed rail but is really just moving slow trains “a little faster.”

After four years and $12 billion poured into high-speed rail, Griffin says it’s nothing but a pipe dream held by those who “stand to make money” from it. After all, “not a single piece of rail has been laid.”

Griffin and Cooper made essentially the same arguments as their last segment, which cast hellfire and brimstone on a successful little project in Vermont that came in on time and under budget, cutting trip times and improving performance. And Streetsblog’s response is essentially the same.

Still, I can’t help calling out a few notable points that surfaced in this week’s story.

This time, they’re focused on improvements between Portland and Seattle, which, Griffin said, cut 10 minutes off a three hour, 40 minute trip. He doesn’t say how much the improvements cost, but he does mention that Washington state got $800 million of stimulus high-speed rail money, “mostly” for these rail improvements. (A small portion of those funds were actually appropriated in 2010, separate from the stimulus.)

If it makes him feel any better, the rest of Washington’s stimulus money for transportation was spent like this:

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