» New applications require state commitment of at least 20% of costs for the first time.
For those searching for evidence that interest in high-speed rail extends beyond the borders of the District of Columbia, look no further than the announcement yesterday by the United States Department of Transportation that it has received 77 applications worth $8.5 billion for the agency’s next allocation of construction grants. States have oversubscribed to a program that only has $2.3 billion in Congressionally approved funds to distribute this year — and have done so after committing to paying at least 20% of project costs.
In January, the DOT released $8 billion in funds to a select group of projects; at that time, states submitted more than $100 billion in proposals. But there was no obligation then for states to contribute to those programs, thus this most recent announcement demonstrates a solidification of state support for high-speed rail.
The federal government is expected to announce the winners of the award dollars on September 30th.
This time around, ten states have submitted applications worth $7.8 billion for long-term, large-scale corridor development and eighteen states have asked for $700 million in construction-ready, relatively small-scale projects. Depending on their specific demands, states have submitted their requests in single or multiple applications. But all states will be required to demonstrate local support for one-fifth of project costs in order to receive federal grants. As calls for Congress to limit spending in the future seem to be increasing, there is a strong likelihood that the DOT will make such contributions mandatory when considering allocations from now on.
The free ride for federal stimulus grants has come to an end. And that’s a good thing, because only states that are investing their own funds should benefit from national dollars. In the past, the U.S. DOT has awarded states only a portion of the funds that they initially request because of a desire to distribute nationwide and a general limitation of overall funds.
States that have applied (the data on the chart above is incomplete, pending more information) generally represent the usual suspects. Florida and California, pursuing the nation’s only two true high-speed rail programs, each have requested more than one billion dollars. For Florida, a full grant award would mean enough money to complete the Tampa-Orlando high-speed project. Though the federal government is unlikely to provide the entire amount requested this fiscal year, the Obama Administration has made clear that it considers the Florida project one of the most important, since it will be the first fully new corridor and represent a milestone for fast train systems in North America. So the Sunshine State will undoubtedly get some money later this fall and the rest of the funds next year.
But California has made a much larger local contribution than its eastern peer, its voters having approved a $10 billion contribution to the San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor in 2008. The state’s $1.58 billion request is relatively minor considering the program’s more than $40 billion total cost and the fact that the federal government has only approved $2.34 billion thus far. But the state is clearly limiting its ambitions; California has asked for $582 million for corridor improvements along existing intercity rail corridors and $1 billion for one of four new high-speed corridors.
California’s move may also be motivated by an interest in pushing away from the state’s responsibility the decision about which section of the full San Francisco to L.A. line to begin with. Four projects “of independent utility” are feasible for a cost of about $1 billion, including the electrification of the existing Caltrain line between San Francisco and San Jose; the construction of new track between Los Angeles and Anaheim; the construction of new track between Bakersfield and Fresno; and the construction of new track between Merced and Fresno. Each of these projects will be necessary for the full program, but if that is put off for years or even decades, these projects will be operable alone.
Yet the High-Speed Rail Authority likely wants to avoid picking one to prioritize since that would make it appear interested in one part of the state more than another; that’s why the federal government is asked to decide, a smart political move. From that perspective, Washington has a hard choice: If it picks one of the former two sections, in the Bay Area or Los Angeles metropolitan areas, it would be doing more for people today on commuter routes; on the other hand, if it picks one of the latter two sections, in the Central Valley, it is more likely to aid more in the completion of the full high-speed program.
Illinois and Iowa have applied jointly for a $248 million grant to connect Iowa City, the Quad Cities, and Chicago with a new intercity rail route. This project would eventually allow two daily round trips between the destinations with maximum speeds of 79 mph.
Other states have submitted minor applications for less noteworthy projects. New York has a number of small projects on its priority list that would, among other things, replace signals between New York City and Albany; construct new stations in Schenectady and Niagara Falls; and improve track in the Syracuse area. North Carolina has asked the federal government to provide $290 million to improve the main line between Raleigh and Charlotte with new bridges and track improvements for better stations in several cities. Connecticut wants $220 million to match the $260 million it has already pledged to improve services along the corridor between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield. Michigan has a series of projects worth $385 million (of which the federal government would pay $308 million) to speed operations between Chicago and Dearborn. And Massachusetts has requested $32.5 million to expand its South Station from 13 to 20 tracks.
Other projects have been submitted for funding as well but I do not have information on them at this time.
With the exception of Florida and California, each of these applications represents steady but not radical improvements in the nation’s existing passenger rail system. All of them are reasonable investments, especially since states have committed to paying some of the costs, but funding limitations at the U.S. DOT will continue to be an obstacle in the way of real advancements towards true high-speed rail.
Map updated 28 August