The Misuse of Stimulus Funds

Boston’s proposed South Coast rail exemplifies what isn’t high-speed rail

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) told reporters yesterday that he envisioned using some of the high-speed rail funds from the stimulus legislation currently under discussion to “accelerate the process” of implementing the South Coast rail corridor, a proposed commuter rail system to run between Boston and the cities of Fall River and New Bedford. The problem is that he seems to think that the Senate’s proposed $2 billion for high-speed rail will provide the dollars to get this commuter rail project moving.

Mr. Kerry has been one of the nation’s top rail advocates in recent years, so to see him pushing forward with the idea of using high-speed funds for what will be a relatively typical commuter rail system – running with big diesel locomotives at speeds of less than 100 mph – is myopic. What is the point of assigning $2 billion to fast rail if those funds go to standard rail projects? Where is this politician’s vision for a national rail network?

All in all, I’m disappointed with Senator Kerry. Fortunately, however, he probably won’t be able to take advantage of those funds for his pet project. The text of the legislation ensures that, according to Mr. Kerry’s own presser, only projects with trains “reasonably expected” to run above 150 mph get funded, and the stimulus package as a whole is supposed to be spent within months, not years. Massachusetts state officials had estimated that this $1.4 billion project would be completed by 2016. Engineering is not even close to being finished.

How, then, could Mr. Kerry have said what he said? Chalk it up to a politician’s limited understanding of the bills he himself is sponsoring, perhaps, but there’s no excuse for this senator not realizing that a commuter rail project such as this simply doesn’t fit the high-speed designation. Nor would its construction – to begin in 2011 at the earliest – do anything to stimulate today’s lackluster economy.

It’s a good thing the Department of Transportation, not Mr. Kerry’s office, will control the money’s distribution.

3 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Norman Brown

    You describe the legislation as I expect it to be written and while I believe you are correct in your analysis I think it shows the character of the high speed advocacy. Since speed, top speed, is the standard that determines whether the money will be granted or not the character of the market to be served carries a certain exurban pedigree. And, I think that same character makes it a very hard sell politically.

    Since those markets are also the home of the SUV and luxury pick up truck, very dispersed populations they are not something that those constituencies are pushing their politicians to fight for. These are the constituencies that fight fuel taxes to the death. And, there are no successful HSR systems anywhere in the world that do not also have very high energy taxes supporting them and increasing demand from the travellers. There is simply not enough money to be had for HSR construction and operation or demand for the service in the hinterlands you intend to serve given low fuel prices.

    While you may not like Sen. Kerry’s position on this corridor it is a great potential commuter corridor with pretty good track. Some technical improvements you could run over 100-120MPH for some stretches. However the same thing that gives this alignment good potential also means you will be stopping those trains pretty frequently as well. I think most HSR advocates are thinking a couple hundred miles between stops.

    I like fast trains but there will never be enough money for everything we need. These sort of suburban areas are exactly where lie the next frontier of rail commuter. Coincidentally they are where the political center of gravity, the swing constituency, reside. These are the services where expansion should next occur. Building HSR from Timbuktwo to TImbukthree does not have the political juice right now.

  • Senator Kerry is one of my favorites, but I have to agree with you. We need to put money into true high speed rail projects that are ready to go. We have a rail project ready in the northwest, I think California has one ready to go too. I’m sure there are some projects in the northeast, I think there’s one ready in Dallas too. There is high speed rail in South America. We better get with it.

  • Norman Brown

    I’m not against you getting all the money you need to cement tie and electrify whatever. However, these services in set to run in corridors where it is not remotely possible that they can achieve that Farebox Operating Ratio any time in my children’s life times (24-27). There are a lot of unanswered questions here and pumping up these corridors simply because there is a plan ready now is not a good way to shoe-horn HSR into the existing rail network. Though why worry about that stuff when the only issue at stake is how fast it goes. One reason it can go so fast is it is basically going through open space. It is hard to fill the seats through open space. Meanwhile, existing systems, working quite well are starved of both capital and operating money.

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