Congress Compromises on $2.5 Billion for High-Speed Rail in FY ’10 Spending Bill

» Conference Committee finds middle ground between House and Senate versions of the resolution, maintains steady funding for transit.

Once President Obama push to include $8 billion for high-speed rail development in the stimulus bill this spring, the race was on to convince Congress to make the mode an annual recipient of transportation funds. The release last night of the Conference Committee’s consolidated appropriations bill, which will be voted on in the next few days by both chambers, suggests inroads in that campaign. Yet believers in the power of high-speed rail to transform communities and reshape movement between cities will be disappointed by the bill’s inclusion of only $2.5 billion for fiscal year 2010.

Writing separate appropriations bills for the Department of Transportation during the summer, the House and Senate proposed very different sums for high-speed rail construction: $4 billion for the former and $1 billion for the latter, conforming to Mr. Obama’s proposed allocation earlier this year. Progressives immediately latched on to the House’s version, arguing that the momentum for fast train development in the U.S. required a huge investment as soon as possible. The total of $12 billion the DOT could then use to fund new rail infrastructure projects would go further towards meeting the up to $57 billion worth of projects states claim they could build over the next few years. $10.5 billion will do less.

If this news is a let-down, it still is $2.4 billion more than has ever been obligated to fast train development in a congressional appropriations bill. It allows the DOT to fully fund very promising projects from Florida and California and still have billions left for other states with less intensive rail programs. It also implies that Congress will continue to fund high-speed rail at these levels, at least over the next few years.

Meanwhile, it remains possible that the Congress will add billions more for high-speed rail in second jobs stimulus focusing on infrastructure, likely to pass over the next few months.

Apart from high-speed rail, the bill will fund the FTA at $10.73 billion, up $602 million from last year; $2 billion will be reserved for New Starts capital projects, the largest sum ever. In addition, it includes $150 million for WMATA, which runs Washington’s neglected Metro system. Amtrak gets $1.6 billion, $82 million above the agency’s request. There will also be $600 million included for discretionary grants for projects that the Secretary of Transportation considers particularly useful.

Highways, maintaining their huge funding advantage, will get $41.8 billion this year.

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Adam

    Overall pretty good news. $2.5bn is probably the minimum required for the necessary breathing room to fund FL, CA, and still have money left over for some other projects. This way, the midwest should still receive a non-insignificant amount as well as $$ for the SE and maybe the NW.

  • Does the $2.5 billion figure apply only to FY2010 or in each of the budgets through FY2014?

  • Adam

    Rafael, it’s just for FY2010. They’ll have a new figure for FY2011.

  • Javier Rodriguez

    Does this funding for Florida high-speed rail include funding for just the Tampa to Orlando line, or also funding for the Orlando to Miami line? IMO, the Miami line is much more important than the Tampa-Orlando line. As Florida’s largest city by far, Miami should have priority over the much smaller cities of Tampa and Orlando.

  • jon

    heres 10 cents… go hold a banquet for 50 people. thats how this federal HSR money feels. you might be able to fund one small piece as part of a single proposed HSR line (yet using money intended for the entire nation). kind of like how that 10 cents might get you a bread roll for one person.

    i really wonder how we ever made it to the moon when you look at our country now. we have no vision, no willingness to do anything remotely difficult or to spend any money. HSR and just rail investment in general could really be just the ticket out of this recession providing jobs now while getting something our country really needs and can use in the future. nevermind all the new private investment and new industries and growth that will be spawned from a new large scale national transportation system.

  • Well the senate is definitely where good ideas go to die. This is very disappointing. $2.5 Billion doesn’t buy much not even the backlog of maintenance on the NEC. If they split it up into more than 2 pieces than it pretty much is nothing. So there isn’t much to go around really. To get $50 Billion to spread around it would therefore take 17 years and $50 Billion doesn’t even quite cover the original requests. Definitely shows a complete lack of commitment. Can Amtrak spend any of their money on high speed rail?

  • Will states have to apply all over for funds from the FY 2010 HSR money since it is a different bill than the ARRA money? Is it governed by different rules? Like a 20% requirement?

  • Adam

    Brandi,
    1. Remember, this is just one year and a one-off appropriation. The real fight is going to be next year with the transportation reauthorization bill. Oberstar proposed $50 bn over 6 years for HSR there. So that is where ours and your efforts should go in lobbying your congresspeople. If you HSR, tell them!

    2. There is also the possibility for some of the recycled TARP funds to be used for HSR. Again, it’s important that you let your congresspeople know that you want some of those infrastructure funds (and that has been all but decided that there will be additional infrastructure funds) to go to HSR. Maybe another $5bn? That’d be a good start. Considering that that would mean we could go from $0 to $15.5 bn in the span of one year, I’d say that would be a significant accomplishment.

    3. I believe Amtrak may use some of these funds, but remember the $2.5 bn is separate from Amtrak’s annual appropriation, which was $1.6 bn in the bill. Amtrak also had separate ARRA funds and should get some more funds for capital improvements in the recycled TARP bill in January. Again, call your congresspeople.

    4. No, states should not have to reapply. This will be part of the same program and now that the bill is passed, FRA can use it for the awards expected to be announced in January. It’s ending up that it’s a good thing that FRA delayed their award announcement since I’m sure this will change their calculus a bit in how the money is doled out.

  • Fritz

    This is all good news but my biggest worry is the lack of a Programmatic EIS on the northeast corridor. I think it would be a big mistake to not have the NEC be an important example of HSR funding in the U.S. Getting the NEC to be “true HSR” would be a great example of an American model for HSR which can include commuter rail on the same ROW. Currently, NEC projects can’t get the Track 2 funding and with Track 1 funds necessarily being spent in 2 years it will be difficult to pull much off. It’s particularly distressing since so many of the NEC projects have project level EISes done, just the corridor needs its. It’s not that the NEC deserves the money more than other projects, it’s just that it should be better able to compete for it.

    In any case, this is pretty good news all around. I can’t wait for the FRA to release the rail plan next year (summer?) and see what they’ve put in terms of priorities.

  • jim

    If I have read the interim guidance right, yes, States will have to reapply. The 2010 appropriation, together with any of the $8B that hasn’t been awarded in Round 1, will constitute Round 2. States will be told how to amend their Round 1 applications to make them more competitive and they may add new applications, too. Virginia, for example, intends to add an application for Richmond to Hampton Roads, which will, by the time Round 2 applications are due, have a Record of Decision.

  • @ Adam -

    ah, ok. Thx for the info.

    @ Javier -

    these $2.5 billion are not earmarked for Florida, it’s for HSR nationwide. USDOT will use it to award grants in the February timeframe. Note that it may be tied to an 80% federal share, so applications against ARRA that were counting on the Feds to foot the entire bill may be ineligible for this additional pot of gold in their present form.

    Btw, the Orlando Airport-Miami leg is still in a much earlier phase of environmental planning and the right of way hasn’t be acquired yet. That’s why the focus for ARRA is on Tampa-Orlando Airport leg, which is shovel-ready in the sense of that bill.

    @ Brandi -

    “$2.5 billion [...] to provide grants to states or Amtrak for high speed/intercity passenger rail”

    +

    “$1.6 billion [...] to support the national passenger rail system.”

    So yes, Amtrak can compete with the states for the $2.5 billion in fresh HSR money, in addition to the $1.6 billion that it’s getting anyhow. Note that the NEC and Amtrak Acela Express are part of the national passenger rail system. Since Amtrak has an $8 billion maintenance backlog on the NEC alone, I doubt it will be looking to expand HSR service into other corridors, with the possible exception of Philadelphia-Harrisburg.

    This grant + compete arrangement mirrors HR2095-110th (PRIIA), though the numbers are different. Afaik, only states were permitted to file an application against the $8 billion in ARRA.

    As for the total amount, yes, it’s still small compared to what other countries are doing, largely as a result of the institutional inertia of the US Senate. Strictly speaking, procedural rules (e.g. indefinite speaking time, filibuster, hold) that pre-empt the application of the US constitution (rule by simple majority) are arguably unconstitutional. Dunno why no-one has filed a lawsuit against the institution of the US Senate yet.

    For reference, Brazil is about to put a $20 billion line from Rio to Saõ Paolo out to tender. Top speed 350km/h, two airport stations, completion in time for the 2016 Olympics.

    @ Fritz -

    unless you’re proposing a brand-new corridor in the Northeast, with dedicated routes into city centers (opportunity for quiet maglev?), there is only limited scope for increasing Acela Express speeds via incremental upgrades. Yonah posted on this recently.

    You can view FRA’s preliminary national rail plan here. Prepare to be underwhelmed, this is a hidebound agency that remains 95% focused on rail freight capacity and safety. That’s essential for the economy, but it’s not yet aligned with the new policy objectives for passenger rail. There’s nothing specific on any PTC standardization process, zip on mixed traffic (use of lightweight passenger rolling stock), very little on corridor development policy. Lots of boilerplate blurb and hand-waving.

  • Adam

    Thanks for the clarification jim. I think though, as you insinuate, it won’t be so much a full blown re-application process, as a tweaking of original applications (or major overhauls if there were serious flaws). And since this is FY2010 money (which we are in now) and therefore, must be obligated before Sept. 30, 2010, I expect it will be a fairly quick turnaround before new grants are awarded.

  • jim

    My expectation is that the NEC will be a separate action. The NEC Master Plan is supposed to be out next month, or maybe early February. We saw a preview that the NEC spine will need something like $10B. The feeder lines (which keep growing: Downeaster is not just going to Brunswick, now, there’s spur to lewiston on the latest maps) will add, perhaps considerably, to it.. I’d expect that FRA, Amtrak and CONEG will do some sort of coordinated push to get it addressed in the Surface Transport Reauthorization.

  • Cameron Slick

    ARRA money, by its purpose, ought to be spent on the projects that can get done quickest. As a child of Detroit, and citizen of Minneapolis, I clearly see justification in the “Chicago Hub” system, and what we are asking for at a minimum is a restoration of service that parts of the country, like the NEC, never really lost.

    That being said, I think the NEC spine is a naturally superior line because of it’s direct connections to New York state, New England, the Southeast (Richmond-Charlotte-Atlanta), and eventually the Deep South, Florida, and Texas.

    However, even ambitious and righteous Rep Oberstar’s proposal isn’t suffice to build a complete national network, yet. But it’s so much better than that which is currently out there. I heard it directly from Sec. LaHood that Pres. Obama doesn’t want to raise the gas tax until the economy has improved. So we must get behind Oberstar if we want to build a national network.

  • Brandi

    Thanks to Adam and Rafael for further explaining the details. It makes more sense now. I find it kind of odd that the arra funds are more grants than matches. It would have probably been better to make those matches to attract only those who were really interested.

    Anyways another question. Will Amtrak be the operated of new high speed services? Will they be branded Amtrak? Like californias current ones? Or will they be up to the state to decide.

  • jim

    I don’t think CA has settled on an operator, but one of the Californians would know. Midwest and Southeast look as though they’re planning to use Amtrak. Florida is going to contract it out:

    “A Public Private Partnership is envisioned in which private entities will be offered the opportunity to operate and maintain the system for a long period in exchange for the ridership revenue from the system.”

  • Adam

    Brandi,

    “I find it kind of odd that the arra funds are more grants than matches. It would have probably been better to make those matches to attract only those who were really interested.”

    The reason they were set up like that is because they are recovery funds and it was assumed that states are very cash-strapped right now and may not be able to devote funds away from other budget holes that need filled to HSR. Now, that being said, they have made it pretty clear that applicants that are willing to put up some money on their own (e.g. california, or the midwest), will be looked up favorably in the grant process.

  • Ocean Railroader

    It looks like the NEC needs to have it’s own funding from the Bank Bailout funds in that so much of it looks like it’s from A Life After People with in how many of it’s bridges are rusted out. It could easy eat up all the new funds Amtrack got from the stumius packages. It looks there is not going to be any stringing of any new catenary wires beyound the old sections that the Pennsyvinia Railroad built 80 years that grandfathered in high speed rail in 2010.

    We could take the 10 billon dollars Goldmen Sacks paid back to the Fed and use that to fund the NEC new up grades and the rail extensions from Washingtion to North Carolina and Norfolk Virginia with bran new up graded full Pennsyvinia Catenary reaching Norfolk Virginia and North Carolina.

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