House Okays Additional $4 Billion for High-Speed Rail

Budget provision, if approved by Senate, will increase federal allocations for rail to $12 billion in this year alone.

Yesterday, the U.S. House passed its housing and transportation bill, which will provide funds for fiscal year 2010. Approved mostly by members of the majority Democratic party, the bill would allocate $4 billion to high-speed rail programs — if the Senate’s version, likely to be considered after the August recess, includes the same provision. If a planned infrastructure bank is authorized by the Congress later this year, $2 billion of the included funds would be shifted there and could be devoted to non-rail projects, though that prospect appears unlikely at this time.

In the President’s Budget, released earlier this year, Mr. Obama asked the Congress to devote $1 billion for the next five years for high-speed rail, in addition to the $8 billion already marked for the program under the stimulus bill. The House’s decision to increase that number to $4 billion is a direct reaction to the huge response from states and the private sphere for stimulus-based federal rail grants. The FRA revealed that forty states had applied for more than $103 billion.

Iowa Congressman Tom Latham (R) attempted to block the inclusion of so much money for rail, arguing that the government shouldn’t embark on what he argued would be a $100 billion endeavor. Yet his amendment was put down by a vote of 136-284, with 40 Republicans voting against his measure — compared to the only 16 members of the GOP voting for the bill as a whole. This indicates strong bipartisan support in Congress for high-speed rail investment and bodes well for similar action in the more conservative Senate.

Two billion of the allocated dollars would be transferred to an infrastructure bank if that agency is established later in the year. The bank would extend low interest loans to valuable projects contributing to the well-being of the nation as a whole, including appropriate private investments. At this point, however, the infrastructure bank has yet to materialize and even if it does, it would likely focus at least initially on rail projects, since they’ve achieved prominence this year in the national discourse.

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Good to hear that some investments have not been halted. And the rail is one of the most important transport ways in the world. That should not be forgotten. Money to develop faster ways of transporting is always good because in time it will save many more money than those 4 Billion.

  • Paz

    So what’s the apportioning process for these funds? Are they going to be distributed with the same four-track system that teh $8 billion is going out on?

  • Paz –
    They will follow the same apportionment process as is being used for the stimulus funds. In other words, DOT/FRA is supposed to use a relatively objective procedure to chose projects worthy of funding.

  • Chris G

    Well this article was a pleasant surprise.

    I especially liked that there were requests for more than 100B. That means two things. Americans are always trying to get something for nothing, and rail is picking up in everyone’s eyes.

  • Abe

    As far too many people have pointed out, while it would be great for the economy to have high speed rail liking cites, the only way people would ride it is if the cites that are connected have decent intra city public transit (the Northeast corridor, Chicago area, California, Pacific northwest). HSR spending anywhere else in the country without first constructing rapid transit or light rail, or competent public transit in general, to get people around in the city without renting a car will just turn into a delayed boondoggle that won’t have sustainable ridership once finished.

  • Cameron Slick

    Abe, it’s awesome incredibly important to have a robust, poly-centric system so that small and medium-size cities (like La Crosse, Kalamazoo, Eugene) are connected to larger cities (Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit). This will encourage development in these exurbs, but more importantly will lower everybody’s oil consumption. If you don’t have to drive or fly, which if you’re not connected to a large airport or freeway is a problem, then you will spend more money on fuel. HSR and Amtrak as it is lessens that problem.

  • Daniel Krause

    I see high speed rail stimulating the creation of new and expanded transit systems in cities that receive high speed rail stops. Though initially transit connections might not be ideal, cities will realize this and be motivated to create new hubs as the Federal government starts investing in the improvement of their communities. I view high speed rail as the skeletal structure of a new transit-oriented pattern of living, and believe such infrastructure is a catalyst for more transit. Therefore, I disagree that it high speed rail is doomed to fail due to a lack of conecting rail systems. For cities with weak rail connections, improved bus and BRT networks can be quickly implemented in the short-term while rail projects are planned for the longer-term.

  • jon

    abe, i agree on the importance of good connecting transit for HSR to work but many cities and regions have come a long way in the last few decades and now have fairly extensive local mass transit systems serving or focused on their main train stations. especially since many of these agencies operate commuter rail out of their main train station therefore the transit system is typically already oriented on the main train station. i think it need not always be just a connecting rail service but can be a multitude of bus lines. in cities like portland and seattle, the main transit corridor of the city terminates at the train station, so you can pretty much get anywhere in the region by transit by just catching a bus or train within a block of the station.

    last weekend i went from portland to seattle on the amtrak cascades and took a local bus directly from king street station in seattle to my neighborhood destination north of downtown seattle. i did not ride in a car once the whole time i was gone, including walking from my home to the station.

    For the California system, LA, SF and San Jose have pretty good transit service with a block of their future HSR stations.

  • Woody

    The good news is that most of the designated HSR corridors include some cities with good or expanding transit, and adding HSR will only encourage new systems and more expansion.

    In Cali, San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento all have significant transit operations already, while L.A. is committed to growing, with a couple of projects underway. Seattle just opened its major light rail line, while Portland has a fair-sized and still-growing system. Chicago, with an extensive transit system, sits at the hub of proposed HSR lines connecting with cites that have some rail transit, like St Louis and the Twin Cities, and some that have none, like Detroit and Cincinnati. Even the routes in Texas and the Southeast can’t be written off, as Dallas is doubling it rail system, and Atlanta and Charlotte at least have made a start.

    But not every city requires a rail transit just yet in order to increase long distance rail ridership immediately. In a hundred smaller cities and towns, most passengers can arrive on what is in effect kiss-and-ride transit, being dropped off at the station by family members or friends in cars, if not a taxi.

    In any case, it’s great to see support for better train service snowballing in Congress and the many bidding states. I hope that’s not limited to HSR and can include more conventional trains at better times on the existing Amtrak system and routes to be restored or added. And let’s hope that the enthusiasm spreads to funding more and better transit connections to inter-city rail.

  • AlexB

    Airports aren’t connected very well to most transit systems in most cities and people use planes all the time. When the national rail network was being laid out in the country in the 1800s, no one said, “Let’s not built a transcontinental line because there is no streetcar in Utah.” HSR will encourage local transit more than the other way around.

    HSR works well based on population sizes and the distances between them. Local transit works well with proper population densities. You don’t necessarily need population density for HSR, but a useful downtown train station will encourage the density that leads to local transit.

  • Abe

    If you noticed my parentheses, I pointed out areas already with good public transit that would connect to the HSR: NE corridor, California, urban Midwest (Chicago), and the Pacific Northwest (Seattle and environs) those areas should get HSR FIRST- that was my point. as for the rest of the corridors, its basically a chicken and egg question. maybe with the funds, the House could have provided funds for the transit poor corridor cites to est. dedicated ROW BRT or light rail. in those places I already listed with good public transit, I fully support HSR. if the largest city on a corridor has good public transit, then the “HSR motivates cities to build their own systems” line of thinking works. if the largest city dosen’t have a public transit system, then the other cites won’t build and simply wait for the large city to do something, while the large city will wait on the satellite cities.

    @ AlexB
    Airports aren’t well connected, but when I say “i’m flying from new york to LA”, you ASSUME that I’ll be renting a car when there. if I say “I’m taking the train/greyhound to LA” (impossible, but this is just a thought exercise), you’ll say (but there’s no train to LAX). culturally, we associate air travel with auto travel afterward, while we associate rail/bus travel to a city with rail/bus travel in the city. Secondly, your point about the transcontinental misses the spirit of my argument. Back then the rail was built by corporations seeking to connect either freight shipments to/from the west to the east, or one time migrators or leisure travelers. It was far easier also to walk through cites and get where you wanted to go without needing a streetcar simply because cites were smaller back then.

  • Woody

    Abe, Sorry, I did forget your parentheticals when I wrote my reply. But while the overall view remains pretty dismal, I think we often overlook the good news about transit in a number of cities. I repeat that Dallas is doubing the DART system, to 90 miles, adding connections to the State Fair park, the main entertainment district, and both airports, Love Field and D-FW. Houston has one enormously successful light rail line, and has started work on four more. Salt Lake City and Denver are building real systems, while even Phoenix and Albuquerque-Santa Fe each have on strong successful line. The West, in other words, is on board for better transit. The laggards are back east, both the rusting cities of the north and sprawling new cities of the south.

    I’m sure we all agree that more and better passenger trains will lead to stronger central cities and a benign urban renewal. And maybe we are arguing chicken-egg as to whether more and faster trains is more important than more and better local connections. The main problems are political will and money, as ever.

    Nowadays, thanks to a few strongly supportive words from Obama, the excitement is over HSR. So I’d say, ride that wave in Congress and get substantial funding committed.

    Next we can turn to more and better funding for urban transit. When that money starts to flow, we could quickly see more transit projects get underway in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Pittsburgh, as well as Jacksonville, Charlotte, Memphis, Tulsa, and Atlanta.

  • I’m glad to see Congress is finally making some progress on getting high speed rail off the ground in this country. Now they just need to set aside $4 Billion for the next 20 years and we will be somewhere. Urban transit definitely needs to get more money as well but I think this will become apparent once more people ride the rails in general.

  • Sadly the Senate is only proposing an additional $1.2 Billion instead of $4 billion. Hopefully the final joint bill follows the House’s proposal.

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