» Florida’s high-speed project is now fully funded from the federal government; California is closer to connecting Fresno with Bakersfield. Other states, including Washington and Illinois, also receive major allocations.
Ohio and Wisconsin will not be getting the new intercity rail lines whose construction Washington agreed to fully fund just ten months ago. The November election of Republican governors meant the revocation of state support for projects that would have connected some Midwestern cities to the national rail network for the first time in decades, including along a line between Milwaukee and Madison and another between Cleveland and Cincinnati. These politicians ran successful campaigns partly based on a refusal to subsidize future train operations.
Today, the federal Department of Transportation announced that it would reappropriate the $1.2 billion in funds once meant for Ohio and Wisconsin to thirteen other states, with the large majority heading to California and Florida, which are building the nation’s only true high-speed lines. Wisconsin will be able to keep $14 million, a tiny fraction of its original award, to spend on improving the existing Amtrak Hiawatha service.
California’s High-Speed Rail Authority will receive $624 million in funds, increasing the state’s total take in the national intercity rail program to $3.9 billion. It announced late last month that it would build a 65-mile corridor in the state’s Central Valley for the first phase of what will eventually be a $45 billion network of 220 mph trains connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego. $616 million of the allocations received today will be dedicated specifically to extend that initial line south to Bakersfield. This should relieve the recently popular rhetoric that the project is a “train to nowhere” because its initial construction would terminate in the little-known city of Corcoran; the new expenditures would connect Fresno and Bakersfield, whose metropolitan areas collectively house 1.7 million people, no insignificant sum. That said, future funding from Washington will be necessary to pay for the whole project, even on top of the $10 billion approved for the project by state taxpayers in 2008.
While smaller, Florida’s $342 million grant represents the last piece of federal funding necessary to pay for an 84-mile line planned for the Tampa-Orlando corridor, along which trains traveling at up to 186 mph will run by 2015 if all goes to plan. As long as the proposal is signed off by new Governor Rick Scott — not the world’s biggest rail supporter, but not fully against it either — construction could begin in 2012. The $2.7 billion project now has $2.35 billion in U.S. funds backing it and $280 million in state funds committed.
Governor Scott is likely to be searching for private partners to cover those latter costs, since he suggested during the campaign that he didn’t want his state’s taxpayers to be on the line for any of the program’s costs. The announcement earlier this week that Japan’s JR Central railroad was willing to offer the state a $210 million loan for the line and that China’s CSR Corp will invest in U.S. manufacturing with General Electric in order to improve its chance to win the right to operate lines in Florida and California should assure him that such aid is forthcoming if a deal that allows the private company to collect ticket revenues is negotiated. Virtually every high-speed rail system in the world is operationally profitable.
The announcement by the Department of Transportation a month before the sitting of the new Congress, in which the House of Representatives will be Republican-led, was likely strategic, designed to prevent the projects in California and Florida from being de-funded, as some have suggested. Incoming House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica of Florida has previously stated his skepticism about the Tampa-Orlando line, even arguing that it be curtailed to a 20-mile segment between the Orlando Airport and the Disney amusement parks. But the full-funding of the project made possible today seems to have convinced Mr. Mica of the full project’s merits. He was quoted in the Tampa Bay Business Journal as saying that “This means we could probably construct the line (to Tampa) without taxpayers underwriting the cost of it,” and that it is therefore an acceptable investment. I assume he meant the State of Florida when he said “taxpayers,” since the national rail program is of course being sponsored by debt that will eventually have to be paid back.
With full support from the incoming Governor of California Jerry Brown, the federal government has now virtually ensured construction will begin on these two significant projects. They must be undertaken very carefully since they represent the first American efforts to invest in true high-speed rail on new, dedicated corridors. The federal government must monitor each project’s progress with an eye towards keeping costs in line and completion on time.
The Department of Transportation has not, however, abandoned its interest in slower-speed intercity rail projects, despite the abandoning of the Ohio and Wisconsin lines. Washington state received some $161 million to improve the line between the Oregon and Canadian borders. Other states, including Illinois, New York, and Maine, will benefit from smaller grants detailed in the table at the conclusion of this article.
The government is likely to have another $1 billion to spend on intercity rail programs in Fiscal Year 2011, based on the budget bill the House of Representatives passed yesterday. That legislation must be approved by the Senate before it enters into law.
|U.S. High-Speed Rail Awards
Image above: Proposed Downtown Tampa High-Speed Rail station, from Florida Department of Transportation