Ignoring Inaction in Congress, DOT Pushes Through Grants for Intercity Rail

» Congress isn’t able to do much in terms of passing new legislation — but the Department of Transportation hasn’t hesitated to move forward to fund intercity rail projects.

Americans are frustrated with the Congress: Over 80% of the population disapproves of the job the national legislature is doing. And no wonder. With the unemployment situation out of control and the economy still on the skids, this is the time for government action.

All we seem to be getting, however, are repeated demands from Republicans to reduce spending drastically — and meek replies from Democrats worried about upsetting the electorate. President Obama’s Jobs Bill, introduced twenty days ago, would provide a real, albeit too small, stimulus to the economy, specifically through the construction and refurbishment of infrastructure.* But the legislation has yet to be introduced in either house of Congress. Meanwhile, getting any transportation spending approved other than short-term extensions of the previous multi-year bill (which expired 729 days ago) has been impossible thanks to disagreement between the parties and a general reluctance to identify funding sources.

When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives early this year, they promised to fight to eliminate previously approved grants for states across the nation to invest in intercity rail projects. Facing a Democratic Senate, that would not be an easy proposition, but the intense effort to reduce government spending over the past year could have meant the loss of funds already promised to states — but for projects not quite ready for prime time.

In the meantime, the Department of Transportation has been pushing grants out of the federal government’s hands as quickly as possible so that they can not be rescinded.

In September alone, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for intercity rail upgrades nationwide: $149 million for New York State, $116 million for New England, $49 million for Texas, $48 million for North Carolina and Virginia, $35 million for the Northeast Corridor, $31 million for Washington State, and $13 million for Oregon, among others. Earlier this summer, hundreds of millions of dollars were appropriated to California and the Northeast. Unless states turn back the money, unlikely considering that the projects have gotten so far and their pro-rail sponsors, these funds cannot be taken back by Congress.

It’s worth questioning how ready most of these states are to use these funds now that they have them, or how quickly they’ll be able to get construction started. The first high-speed rail grants were announced in January 2010; other than the project to upgrade tracks between Chicago and St. Louis, has any major construction begun?

The DOT, perhaps, wouldn’t be rushing these grants out to the states if it were completely confident that the high-speed and intercity rail funding program were alive and well. Under an Obama Administration and a fully Democratic Congress, that would be likely.

But the Senate came very close a week and a half ago to approving a fiscal year 2012 budget that had no money at all for high-speed rail — and Mr. Obama seemed ready to go along, in the spirit of budget-cutting bipartisanship. The compromise that was eventually reached last week saved $100 million for the mode (a pittance compared to years passed), though even that could face considerable obstacles in the House.

Though Republicans now seem willing to spend a bit more money on transportation than they did a few months back because of an outcry that set in once it became clear that initial plans would reduce funding (and therefore transportation-related jobs) by 30%, their investment strategies would do little to increase the annual federal appropriations now spent on mobility. We are at a standstill, unable to make a big move.

What has been made manifest over the past few months is that President Obama’s efforts to alter American transport policy have been far from universally accepted, that their long-term effect on U.S. mobility is unclear, and that the DOT has been forced to descend into a defensive mode in which it has no choice but to push grants out as quickly as it can for fears that legislators will change their minds mid-stream.

Mr. Obama’s affection for high-speed rail is well-known, and he has included it as an integral element of his transportation plans from the beginning, unlike former President Bill Clinton, who said he cared about intercity rail during the 1992 campaign but then proceeded to forget about it. Yet, possibly because of low approval ratings stemming from other issues, the current Administration has been unable to convince other politicians — especially many Republicans — that such projects are worthy of investment. Mr. Obama’s message, rebooted several times (first as a way to “win the future,” then as part of the Jobs Bill), simply has not come across loud and clear.

These difficulties, along with the GOP-Governor-forced destruction of three marquee projects in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, has once again reinforced the idea that Americans simply cannot handle the idea of spending government funds on intercity rail — despite the quite positive effects it has produced abroad. The fact that the Congress continues to debate transportation investments in terms of mode, with a certain pot of money reserved for roads, another pot for transit, etc., suggests that few in power have taken seriously the concept that transportation decision-making should be mode-neutral and oriented towards providing the best-possible mobility, economic, and environmental benefits. The fact that future rail investments are predicated on getting specific outlays for that mode is a sad reflection of the way we currently invest in our travel corridors and in our cities;  we seem to be considering mostly vehicles, not the passengers in them.

So the DOT moves forward, articulating a strategy to distribute the funds it does have as quickly as possible. This is not a long-term approach and it is not a sustainable one.

* The U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced how Mr. Obama’s Jobs Bill dollars would be distributed: $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges; $9 billion for rebuilding transit systems; $5 billion for TIGER-like competitive grants; $4 billion for high-speed rail projects, $3 billion for aviation improvements; and $10 billion for an infrastructure bank.

Image above: Albany-Rensselaer Station, set to receive aid from the Federal Railroad Administration for improvements, from Flickr user mava (cc).

79 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Construction has started in Illinois. I wrote about it on my blog, Steven Can Plan – with photos to prove it! There’s even a video to show HSR tracks being installed.

    I have the same question. What other states have begun to spend their high-speed rail grants, beside Illinois?

    • Illinois’s line is not HSR – it’s Amtrak-plus.

      • I don’t care what it’s called. It’s the only recipient of ARRA/HSIPR funds using the funds to make intercity passenger rail faster.

        • AlanF

          No, the Chicago-Detroit corridor will see significant improvements in trip time and 110 mph speeds over much of 235 miles of the route once the funding is in place and Michigan signs off on the agreement to buy 135 miles of track from Norfolk-Southern.

          Other current Amtrak routes that will see trip time improvements, albeit not as dramatic as Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit are:
          -Empire corridor
          -Vermonter route with increase in service frequency up the CT river valley in central MA and to VT. Should be close to a hour faster north of Springfield MA.
          -New Haven CT to Springfield MA. Maybe 30 minutes faster by 2016.
          -Piedmont corridor in NC
          -Some small improvements on the Keystone East corridor.
          -the NEC gets some small improvements.

        • Nathanael

          The expensive and complicated Englewood Flyover — which has started construction, although it’s all site prep and utility relocation so far — will most certainly make intercity rail faster. I can’t count how many times intercity trains have simply SAT there waiting for commuter trains.

        • Ocean Railroader

          It’s also the only rail project to start building rail right off the bat and not spending their money on studies and PR. It’s also the first one not to have it get sucked up into the poltical tea party trash can.

  • I’d love to see an article showing what has, or has not bee done with all the HSR money announced in 2009 and 2010. Is a single train running faster?

    • AlanF

      The original round of HSIPR stimulus grants were announced in late January 2010. Much of the funding has only been obligated in the past 2-3 months because so many of the state agencies had to get up to speed on all the steps, ES work, and contract bidding process.

      The Vermonter may be the first train to notably reduce trip times in the next Amtrak schedule because the track upgrades in VT have been put in over the summer. And then got a big setback due to the flood damage from Irene. Is the Vermonter HSR north of New Haven CT once it gets off of the NEC. No, not even close.

      Many of the track and ROW improvement projects won’t really get going until summer of 2012. That is one of the realities of just how slow the process has gotten for infrastructure work – be it roads, highways, rail, airports, water system – has gotten in the US.

      • Nathanael

        The Vermonter isn’t HSR, but it very very much needs the upgrades; it wasn’t even Ordinary Speed Rail before, and now it will be.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Albany and Springfield are same distance from Penn Station give or take a few miles. Empire trains take 2:30, 2:25 on the fastest. Trains from Springfield take 3:35… Metro Springfield is very very roughly the same size as Albany. Hartford is roughly twice the size of Albany. Springfield had 130,790 boardings in 2010. Hartford had 170,060. Albany had 737,259.
          …. Schenectady had 56,125 and Saratoga Springs had 30,261 or 86,386 for Albany’s suburban stations. Or Albany’s suburbs had roughly half the passengers of Hartford…. I have a feeling some more speed would increase ridership in the Connecticut River Valley.

          • Adirondacker12800

            …passengers not boardings.. the state reports from Amtrak report boardings and alightings at each station.

          • AlanF

            Good point on the population sizes in Springfield MA and Hartford CT compared to the current ridership numbers for the Albany – NYC corridor. The New Haven to Springfield corridor has gotten $190 million in HSIPR funds along with some $284 million in CT state funding to restore double tracking, upgrade all the stations to high level platforms, although I think the funding is still short of what is needed to increase speeds to 110 mph on the corridor.

            The CT & MA plans for the New Haven to Springfield corridor are to start a commuter service, but also to increase Amtrak service to Hartford, Springfield, and further north to Greenfield MA. The problem with getting trip times from Springfield to New York Penn Station to match NYC to Albany times is the Metro-North New Haven line from New Rochelle to New Haven. That section can’t be made high speed. Still, the trip time improvement for New Haven to Sprinfield will be ~30 minutes by 2016 and the NHV to NYC times might get cut by 15 minutes someday.

            • jim

              Metro-North owns Poughkeepsie to Spuyten Duyvil and restricts speeds there. Croton-Harmon to Spuyten Duyvil is quite congested at peak.

              The Hudson Line isn’t as bad as the New Haven Line, but both restrict Amtrak.

          • Anandakos

            Adirondacker,

            The great difference in volumes between Springfield-New York and Albany New York is primarily that Albany-New York links the world’s largest financial center and the seat of government that most affects its operations. Amtrak is getting lots of lobbyist money.

        • Ocean Railroader

          It’s still has a lot of respect in that over all it’s dropping a hour to two hours off of the existing eight to ten hour train trip and by rail standards that is very amazing.

  • Tim

    80% disapprove of Congress, yet the reelection rate for House incumbents was about 87% in the 2010 cycle (though losing Oberstar among the other 13% continues to hurt). From these numbers, it looks like it is everyone else’s member who is the problem; anyone care to take a look in the mirror?

  • Joseph

    I can’t for the life of me figure out why Republicans are so against Amtrak. I mean, we had more than a century of privately owned passenger rail service in the United States. When Amtrak was born, every single one of the Republican candidates for the presidency, including Mitt Romney who just told a New Hampshire newspaper that he wants to privatize Amtrak, was alive. They just have to read the old newspapers and history books to realize that the railroads back then didn’t want to provide the service, except that people still used the routes. I know that most people have cars now, but you can’t deny that in a region like the Northeast where 100 million more people are projected to be around by 2050, having a very viable railroad system is a very important thing. And all you have to do is look at prescedents for privitzation (UK?) to see how rail service suffers from being fractured. Hell, all you have to do is look at trying to make the NJ Transit/SEPTA connection at Trenton station in the morning to see what happens when you fracture systems.

    How. Is. This. Hard.

    • Danny

      Amtrak was nothing more than a mild relief to an industry that was on the verge of extinction due to regulation. It was like a drink of water in the middle of the Sahara…enough relief to hold you over for another moment, but nothing compared to the actual relief of being in your air conditioned living room. Saying that the railroads wanted to ditch passenger rail is disingenuous…they just wanted to survive.

      The experience of Conrail proves this quite well: a bunch of rail lines that were strangled to death by regulation and then reorganized (ditching a few extremely unprofitable lines, of course) continued to lose money. It was only after the Staggars Act that Conrail could actually turn a profit.

      The fact that Amtrak happened before the Staggars Act is history, and it is unchangeable. But that does not mean that passenger rail was inherently unprofitable, or would continue to be unprofitable today. It just means we never got to see how profitable it could be.

      But the absolute best part of your comment comes in your last few sentences. You talk about having a viable railroad system to service a region with a projected growth of 100 million people…and then immediately transition to how privatization is inherently a bad idea. It is almost as if you had no access to Google.

      Here is a little help if you care about your credibility: When the highest-ridership rail system on the entire planet has been continuously proving your theory wrong for 20 years straight, you might want to tone down the condescension.

      • Adirondacker12800

        ditching a few extremely unprofitable lines, of course

        When Conrail was formed they had 17,700 miles of track, by 1990 that was down to 13,000 miles. It was more than just a few unprofitable lines.

      • Andrew Mayer

        I would have to agree with your last point. The largest region for passenger railroading in the US would also the easier place for a private company to make a profit. Even so though, public subsidies would be required for the huge capital costs of maintaining and upgrading the NEC and other lines in the Northeast (even back in the 1930s, PRR had to get public funding to complete electrification into Washington).

        • Kyle

          It’s definitely true that large subsidies for upgrading and maintenance would be required for the NEC and other lines. But, every other form of transportation requires and already draws large subsidies for upgrades and maintenance…I don’t see the difference.

          • Marcella D.

            The major, gigantic difference is that whereas road and airport facilities are maintained as public-access facilities, usable by any certified legal vehicle, railway proposals usually come on anti-competitive, unacceptable monopolistic schemes where some central authority will decide schedule and only one company will operate, killing the opportunity for multiple operators to use a public infrastructure.

            Unless they come up with a scheme that makes such railroads really public access with multiple operators allowed (at expense of centrally-planned schedules, so be it), there should be no expenditures on that.

            • Kyle

              I agree that intercity passenger rail should be opened up to competition. If the U.S. government starts buying different sections of ROW across the country and upgrades each line to 125 – 220 mph (depending on the line) then I have no problem with getting rid of operational subsidies. Most other countries around the world with a robust passenger rail network have a structure where government owns the infrastructure and service is provided by private companies. We should do the same in the U.S. But, this is kind of a chicken and egg argument, we should continue to subsidize operations for one national operator until this happens.

            • Peter

              @ Marcella D.

              You apparently don’t know anything about how airports operate. I’d like to see you roll in with a “certified legal vehicle”, say a 737, and expect to get serviced, or even expect to get a gate.

              • Marcella D.

                Of course airplanes are scheduled, they have flight control assigned paths, slots on the runways and gates etc. But this is how open access is operationalized: time slots and pre-defined flight paths.

                However, airlines, provided they have access to the time slots, can use them as they are pleased to almost all the time, set up routes, implement or withdraw services to different cities etc.

                A similar philosophy should be applied to rail, instead of having a monopolistic company on a national or regional level that faces no competition from other rail operators.

                Not doing so would be like resorting to the expensive air travel days of Panair, which had exclusive international operation monopolies of all air routes to Europe and most of Africa and Asia!

              • Marcella, what you’re describing for air is how trains are licensed in open access regions like Germany. Of course DB still dominates – open access doesn’t prevent fortress hubs and such – but regional authorities specify a schedule useful for passengers, and let private companies bid on train services.

              • Marcella D.

                Alon, I don’t think I’m referring to that.

                FAA doesn’t establish “routes useful for passengers” that airlines must operate at pre-defined schedules.

                They let the airlines sort that out through free market mechanisms.

              • Rail travel isn’t air travel. Best industry practice is to make sure connections are timed well across different operators. The JRs do it amongst themselves but ignore the other railroads; Switzerland does it much better, with timed connections between different companies.

                When every agency or company decides schedules independently of all others, you get Britain, or today’s Penn Station. It makes for great individual core lines and terrible networks. If that’s the free market, sign me up for communism.

            • Nathanael

              In other words, Marcella, you have an arbitrary and baseless bias against centralized systems.

              Fact is, railroads work best with centralized management — just like water supply systems do, and the same with any other infrastructure-heavy transportation network. (Do you prefer to have “competition” in your local water utility? It doesn’t make the water any better.)

              These monopolies should, of course, be under democratic control — publicly owned — because private monopolies are just theft. I’m glad my water utility and Amtrak are public; I wish my electric utility and my monopolistic Internet Service Provider were.

              But a fetishistic demand for “competition” where it actually *hurts* service (as it routinely does in railroads) or for “free markets” where it naturally leads to private monopolies — that’s just blind ideological thinking.

              Heck, it’s the wrong thing to do in air service too — since US “deregulation” of air service, airlines have become a guaranteed way to go bankrupt (except when they get bailouts, and the US has given them quite a few); the government-run flag carriers of other countries thrived until Europe decided to follow the US’s bad lead. Soon I expect to see *every* airline go out of business, even *with* bailouts.

      • Drewski

        If you wanna bring up Conrail…well…

        Conrail was on a long-term program of maximizing best use of the corridors it inherited. They were in the process of consolidating rights of way, which also meant (1) vacating rights-of-way and (2) maximizing the value of capital improvements. Cleveland and Northeast Ohio are an excellent case study of this, since Cleveland was a major Conrail hub.

        The old Cleveland – Vermilion (west shore) line is horrible for freight. Aside from the drawbridges (at Lorain and at Cleveland), the section from West 110th St through the city of Lakewood has more grade crossings per mile than possibly any other mainline track in the US. This was a double-track right-of-way, through the heart of the most densely populated part of Ohio (c. 12000 ppl/sq mi). There is a far better corridor, also starting in downtown Cleveland, but via Berea and Elyria to Vermilion, with easy room for triple track and a good amount of running through open country. The lineside industry of the shore line is largely gone; what remains (in Avon and Sheffield) is already served by a connection from the Cle-Berea-Elyria-Vermilion route.

        But no. There were negotiations in place for Conrail to sell the Lakewood/Lorain corridor to Cleveland RTA for $1, allowing RTA to begin planning for passenger service. The sale couldn’t be arranged before Congress insisted on dismantling Conrail, so there are now 13 freights a day (this includes 2-mile-long coal trains) rolling through neighborhoods where crossings come every 300 feet. This is so because Norfolk Southern had to have an exclusive r/w of its own, instead of being reliant on CSX to live up to a trackage agreement.

        There are examples like this across this part of the country. East of Cleveland, there are two parallel rights of way, at least as far as Erie, and very much like what’s costing a few billion euros to build in Germany between Karlsruhe and Basel. Under Conrail, it was possible to treat those two r/w’s as one corridor, but that’s impossible under two different owner/operators.

        Conrail’s breakup did nothing to benefit the quality of the overall rail network in this part of the country–and rusty though we may be, we still make more cars, steel and other heavy goods up here than damn near any other part of the US. Two single-track lines are not as good as one double-track line, especially when it’s easier to grade-separate one line than two. Where St Louis was able to take the abandoned Wabash r/w and use it as the trunk for Metrolink, Cleveland can’t expand rapid service to a strong corridor with either heavy (Red Line) or light (Blue/Green Lines) rail, because the corridor is occupied by a nuisance freight line. Rapid or commuter rail is similarly thwarted in all our other regional corridors.

        Please don’t waste your breath singing the praises of a post-Conrail environment which has only hastened the decline of my part of America. Conrail at least had the sense to make best use of our massive infrastructure–real value for money spent; CSX and NS are like squatters in the Roman ruins, burning marble statues to get lime to plaster a hearth.

        • Nathanael

          Thanks for your comment.

          The amount of waste caused by railway ROW privatization and competition is extraordinary. I could start in on the problems in New York, where a private company controls the best passenger route (using it for freight), while the best slow freight routes with the most lineside traffic… lie abandoned. I could describe the problems in Chicago, where different companies’ track ownership creates illogical, roundabout, and conflicting routings.

          Really, all that needs to be said is that British Rail was better than the Big Four and the Big Four was better than the myriad of overlapping companies before that in the UK… but we can’t seem to get the benefits of railway track centralization through our heads in the US.

    • Adirondacker12800

      I can’t for the life of me figure out why Republicans are so against Amtrak.

      Because it annoys the hippies. Even thought the last hippie quietly wandered off in 1978.

      • Nathanael

        Yep, it’s a culture war thing. Cars are the symbol of “individualism”, and trains are the symbol of “collectivism”.

        Perhaps this association is unavoidable because trains benefit from centralized dispatching.

        It’s just stupid, but there it is.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Well unless you are Dagny Taggart….

          • EngineerScotty

            Someone needs to revise Atlas Shrugged so that Taggart’s SUVs are running on concrete made from Rearden Cement.

            Why not? If Paul Revere was ringing bells on his midnight ride, this sort of revisionism is quite in order!

            :)

      • Don

        Not because Amtrak has a subsidy per passenger mile that 10X greater than aviation?

        • Kyle

          If “per passenger mile” was a statistic that actually provided any valuable information than it might mean something.

          • I agree that per passenger mile metrics are flawed (pretty much every urbanist writer, including me, has written about this), but the one thing they work quite well for is intercity rail.

            • Kyle

              You’re right. They are valuable in certain instances when comparing one rail line vs. another rail line for example. But what they are not valuable for is using them as a comparison between different modes of travel to make a case for one form over the other, which seems to be all that they are used for.

            • Chad

              Passenger miles metrics are obviously complete garbage for local trips, but they really aren’t that useful even for intercity. There is still too much lost in debates about what to count and not to count that in the end, nobody agrees with the numbers anyway.

              The most important metric in my mind is transportation spending as a portion of GDP. By this method, the auto-centric system of the US, Canada, and Australia fails epically. We spend fifty percent or more than Europeans, and nearly double what Japanese do. The primary reason for this is that while cars might be cheap “per passenger mile”, the auto-centric system doubles or triples the miles you need to go, negating any savings you gained by cheaper per mile costs.

              I live 17 minutes and $2.00 from downtown Kobe Japan, where there is more to do than in Cleveland (my US home) and everything closer than Chicago. I pass several grocers and about 70 small businesses on my train commute home, and similar numbers exist within a five minute walk of my apartment. Since Japanese employers cover your work commute as part of your pay, I literally have NO transportation expenses except the tickets I chose to buy for recreational purposes. In practice, that amounts to about $200 per month; much, much less than the cost of owning a car.

              • Chris

                I’m not sure what you are getting at by comparing transportation spending as a portion of GDP, since you aren’t comparing the quality of the outcomes at the same time. Cost/passenger-mile at least tries to look at both sides of the equation.

              • Chad

                I have no idea how you could quantify differences in “quality of outcome”, but qualitatively, they are no better, if not worse, in the US than in Europe or Japan (I have lived in all three). The only two advantages of the auto-centric system in my mind are that it may “save” you a bit of time, and it fits your schedule exactly. I put “save” in quotes because while auto trips may be a bit shorter on average, driving consumes your time almost completely, while transit allows you to read, study, sleep, etc and hence does not really consume as much time as you spend on the trip.

                The advantages of a transit oriented system are manyfold:

                1: Way cheaper overall
                2: Safer
                3: Cleaner and less damaging to the environment, wildlife, and public health
                4: Can be used by the young, old, and disabled
                5: Favors small, divergent, independant businesses over chain big boxes
                6: Integrates exercise seemlessly into peoples’ lives
                7: Any “extra” time spent on transit vs driving can generally be used productively
                8: Re-inforces density, which not only saves you travel time and money, but also enhances economic output

                Cost/passenger mile only looks at the benefit side of the equation by making the absolutely idiotic assumption that benefits are proportional to distance travelled, which in fact is absurd. I can travel just a few miles by train here in Japan and experience a far wider variety of places than I could with a full tank of gas back in Ohio.

          • Marcella D.

            This quasi-hysteria against passenger-miles seems to be a case of “I don’t like the conclusion, I bash the method – on unrelated ground”.

            Passenger-miles is an indicator with many applications and uses, and limitations like anyone else.

            I get seriously disappointed, as someone working in a statistics-relate field, when people discard metrics that are sound for their purposes just because they reveal some “inconvenient truth” (pun intended).

            There is no single transportation infrastructure usage indicator that, alone and on itself, suffices even a basic set of information for decision-making or comprehensive analysis.

            One ought to use a set of different measurements to evaluate different aspects of transportation infrastructure. Passenger-mile, or its freight cousin, TKM, are absolutely essential in any analytic process based on hard data given previously defined ad-hoc constraints.

            To negate the utility of passenger-mile is like – as I actually read once – to negate the utility of measuring fatalities per vehicle-mile under because “it makes airplanes look safer than they actually are in comparison with high-speed rail, so fatalities should be measured per rider/time span”.

            I’m not directing this critic against anyone here, but against the whole mindset of a substantial part of the urban planning community that just ignores whatever hard, factual science that doesn’t suit their paradigm. It’s like the overuse, indeed, abuse, of the term “externality” as a loophole to throw any number (as measuring them is inherently tricky and equally sound models might yield totally different results)that sways an otherwise financially feasibility study that doesn’t suit the “discourse”.

            • Chad

              We discard this metric because it is meaningless. “cost per passenger mile” makes a fatally flawed assumption – that the factors that change the numerator are not also simultenously affecting the denominator. In practice, this is wildly false. The systems with high costs per mile also dramatically reduce the number of miles you need to go in the first place, often more than cancelling the higher costs.

              My trip downtown costs $4.00 round trip. That’s about 50 cents per passenger mile, certainly more expensive than my car back in the US. But you know what? I get a much, much better deal here, because I don’t travel 300 miles per week like I do in the US, but rather something closer to 100.

              • Marcella D.

                Chad, I believe the function of any transportation analysis is to maximize mobility.

                I don’t care about access, like how far one has to travel to buy their groceries (as you referred in another comment above).

                From a transportation point, that is meaningless: my function as a technician on transportation models is to maximize your mobility as far, fast and as cheap as possible. Then, where you go and for what is none of my business.

                If, as you described, your employee is indirectly subsidizing your grocery errands and you don’t feel the need to buy groceries at large stores with huge variety, that is fine by me. But don’t try to force that choice on other via transportation.

                It’s like the electricity distribution sector: its function it to source and deliver whatever power supply you need on your power sockets in your home, without any consideration of what are you using the electricity for.

                I find this idea of reducing the need to travel for any reason other than lack of money to pay for transportation as social engineering of the worst kind, nanny-state policy.

                Let us provide you with transportation option to the widest possible area in the cheapest and fastest possible way within given constraints. Then you travel, or not, according to your preferences.

              • You don’t care about access, but most riders do. Although American exurbs are growing quickly, outright rural areas where people need to burn a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk are losing population (and this is true everywhere – the world is urbanizing precisely because of access issues).

                Now, if you’ve decided maximizing travel distance is a worthy social goals and all other goals are social engineering, then sure, passenger-km are a unit of benefits. In reality it’s social engineering to reduce hypermobility, but it’s no more social engineering than parking minimums or road subsidies.

              • Chad

                Marcella, there are few things more dangerous than a person who tries to optimize the wrong part of their system. If your goal is to move people as far/fast/cheap as possible, without thinking about about how you might be diminishing the environment which people are moving far/fast/cheap through, and thereby partially or even completely negating your efforts, please quit your job now.

                The best transportation system is not one that can get me far away reasonably quickly and cheaply. It’s the one that provides me everything I need within a short distance, such that I only need to travel long distances on rare occasions.

            • Marcella, ton-km and passenger-km are both great metrics for intercity transportation. They’re terrible metrics for commuter transportation, in which the choice of mode or operating pattern or city will influence how far you have to travel to work in the first place.

        • ThomasD

          But no one wants to count externalities of air & noise pollution of aviation or that many taxpayers who helped fund airports won’t fly.

        • Nathanael

          Compare Amtrak’s entire nationwide subsidy to the so-called “Essential Air Service” subsidies, which only a few of the most doctrinaire Republicans have proposed cutting. Clearly, gratuitous subsidies are popular among many Republicans.

          No, the hatred of Amtrak is plainly because many Republicans just hate trains. It’s not *rational*.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Nah, they hate hippies. Hating trains um um ..annoys… hippies. It comes with a side order of annoying Northeasterners.

  • eldondre

    Pennsylvania will complete it’s small portion for grade crossings in the spring, ME has construction underway, as does VT. Of course, the places where the biggest dollars went show few signs of life..CA and WA. If we were to privatize passenger rail, it should be by providing incentive for the freights to run it rather than the UK model. The problem is largely that Amtrak is inefficient and unresponsive, ruled by an ineffectual DC bureaucracy and hampered not just by lack of funding by by arbitrary laws affecting it’s day to day operation. If it runs a connecting bus, it’s banned from selling tickets unless that person is a train rider. It’s banned from discounting seats more than 50% (so if an airline had a $1200 seat, then the minimum for that class of seat would be $600 if they had to follow the same rules). Federal money can only be used for trains of more than 750 mi. if the R’s want a more business like approach, remove these rules.

    • Beta Magellan

      While I’m in definite agreement about the 750 mile rule and various other restrictions on Amtrak’s operating practices, there are three big problems with what you’re suggesting:

      1. Any incentives to get the freights running passenger rail would be very hefty (comparable to Amtrak subsidies if not greater) and service levels wouldn’t be any better—there’s not a high enough profit margin for them to invest in new passenger-primary infrastructure or to make carrying people a priority.

      2. American freight rail operating practices and infrastructure standards ≠ good freight rail operating practices and operating standards [insert typical Alon Levy comment].

      3. Inefficient, unresponsive, and ineffectual are also apt terms to describe the railroads’ corporate bureaucracy.

    • And practically nobody is going to bid until and unless modern lightweight trains are permitted on US tracks.

      • Drewski

        Thank you, sir! A huzzah and here here! Who knows–if we had trains allowed on our tracks that the REST OF THE WORLD uses, then maybe we’d find that the private sector might be a little more interested? Oh, but that’s crazy talk, right?

    • Nathanael

      Actually, WA seems to be moving at a perfectly reasonable pace, apart from the problematic and important case of the Point Defiance Bypass, where the FRA required another environmental report.

      It’s got a lot of projects which involve more engineering than concrete pouring, so you may not see much going on while King Street Station approach interlocking is rearranged.

  • Beta Magellan

    Anyone know what Texas’s grants are for?

    • Michael

      Not sure

      However there was a proposed Austin-San Antonio commuter rail. I’m unsure where that project went

    • FRA 20-11, Thursday, September 01, 2011

      … A $34 million TIGER II grant will fund major rail improvements on the Tower 55 project in Fort Worth, TX…. alleviate congestion at one of the busiest railroad intersections in the United States, where ten freight and passenger rail routes converge and carry more than 100 trains per day. The high volume of trains currently results in lengthy delays for area commuters and passengers…

      In addition, … a $15 million high-speed rail grant … will jumpstart engineering and environmental work on a high-speed rail corridor linking … Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston. …

    • AlanF

      TX received 4 project grants from the HSIPR stimulus and FY10 funds for a total of $31.5 mllion. The Tower 55 project in TX, as mentioned, was funded by a TIGER grant, the funding for which was obligated a month or two ago.

      Looking at the FRA list of obligated projects, 2 of the TX projects are now obligated, 2 are still pending. The obligated projects are:
      -$3.7 million for signal timing of grade crossings to increase the operating speed of the Heartland Flyer route in TX. If I recall correctly, this is going to allow the Heartland Flyer to go from 60 mph max speeds to 79 mph for a sizable part of its route, so it is a very low hanging fruit improvement and a good use of the HSIPR funds.
      -$15 million for preliminary engineering and project-level environmental analysis necessary to develop a new Core Express corridor from Dallas – Fort Worth to Houston. Gets the process moving on a serious engineering study on implementing a Dallas to Houston corridor train.

      The projects still to be obligated:
      -$7.2 million for addition of a second track between existing double track sections on the Texas Railway Express passenger corridor, including the construction of a new 200-foot bridge and elimination of one grade crossing.
      -$5.6 million for feasibility study, service development plan, and environmental work on a Oklahoma City to Dallas/FW to San Antonio corridor service.

  • Tim E

    Trying to understand political positions makes your head spin. House GOP wants to cut out state sponsored corridors where Amtrak and states have had some considerable success and poise to take it up a notch from Seattle to Portland, Chicago to St. Louis, Raliegh to Richmond, KC to St. Louis and so on. These investments are pretty reasonable once you start comparing against the cost of rebuilding the aging interstate network parallel to most to of these routes let alone expanding them. But many conservatives, especially along the northern tier, want their long distance trains or small airport subsidy as they see it as essential service.

    Then you turn around and wander about states, Michigan GOP Gov and state reps have gone full in on the Wolverine line where as Wisconsin passed up a great deal but then turned around and tried to salvage Chicago to Milwaukee upgrades (still believe LaHood should have cut a deal, take back $600 mil and let the rest go towards Chicago to Milwaukee). To top of the head spinning, Wisconsin still invested in the rail line between Milwaukee to Madison to keep a marginal freight business afloat.

    • Nathanael

      LaHood was quite specifically warning other states not to pull what Walker pulled. Chi-Milwaukee got punished because Walker was a jerk and didn’t take the money for Milwaukee-Madison.

      Unfortunately for Wisconsin, it was necessary to make an example of Walker. It was crucial for LaHood to show that you couldn’t just bully the federal government — it was essential that he give Walker nothing. Luckily, governors like Snyder in Wisconsin seem to have learned the correct lesson from it, and are taking the money for exactly what the Feds offered it to them for.

    • FG

      It looks like Michigan was awarded money for improvements and purchase of tracks, assuming the news item I saw today was correct.

  • eldondre

    Alon-yes, that’s another silly regulation that needs to be removed
    beta on point 3, what? no company is perfect but the freight railroads have been investing real money into real engineering projects to improve their bottom line with real results despite the decidedly anti-capital investment tax policies in the US. look at BNSF’s response to the flooding problems, far better than sending atm cards to new orleans. in a relative sense, they are efficient and responsive. the plan isn’t perfect, no plan is, but it’s a better plan than the open access infrastructure entity and has more of a proven track record. as noted, there are many reasons why amtrak isn’t allowed to operate like a business even if they wanted to…but these rules exist in lots of industries. the FDA requires meat producers (farmers) to send their meat to a central FDA approved plant to be inspected, then shipped back. it’s billed as a health improvement but its really a subsidy to big business and drives up the cost for small producers…these are the back end rules that have changed (destroyed) our food distribution system. the FRA has similarly foolish rules. it’s these rules that are killing business, passenger rail, and the country while we argue about marginal tax rates.

    • Marcella D.

      eldondre, in the specific off-topic issue of meat processing, there are valid, compelling reasons to require meat to be inspected on health grounds. The occasional E. colli scare we get today is nothing compared to the routinely infections from contaminated shoddy slaughter practices of the past.

      FRA, back in the 1950s, had bet on improving crash-worthiness of trains instead of avoiding crashes. By then, nobody knew how would train technology be developed further down the road.

      Imagine if, instead of air-bags, seat belts or the whole “survival cell” concept, car technology had somehow evolved to minimize crashed to the absolute minimum… it didn’t happen, and today we praise FHWA and DOT for making cars much, much safer than they were in the 1960s.

      Let’s remember: FRA was a lead on rail safety when it implemented many of the rules we all love to bash. It imposed heavily costs on passenger rail that wouldn’t be ever imposed by government-run railways in Europe without a long term implementation plan.

      • FRA was not ever a lead on rail safety. Neither was the ICC, which was the relevant regulatory agency until the 1960s. Many of its rules were explicitly meant to harass railroads into installing ATS and in-cab signaling, for example the 79 mph speed limit. Others were a result of pure incompetence, for example the 3″ cant deficiency limit, which was based on experiments with passenger comfort (why is that a compelling government interest anyway?) on a train with unusually poor suspension.

        Even the crashworthiness rule was based more on prejudice than on realism. The European agencies instead went for survivable spaces, crumple zones, and strong brakes. It turns out that having a government that doesn’t actively hate the railroads and isn’t doing its best to browbeat them can produce good results.

        Some people praise the FHWA for improving highway safety. Others have seen the per-vehicle-km death rate trend since the 1910s, which is a constant reduction of about 3.3% per year.

        In political science, there’s a fallacy whose name I forget, in which a policy implemented at a time when a problem is especially acute is then credited with success during the subsequent mean reversion. For a concrete example, take crime policies: new policies are usually tried after a spike in crime, and if the spike is temporary, then the crime rate will then drop, making it look as if the new initiatives were responsible. The late 1950s and early 1960s were unusual in that the per-vkmt traffic accident death rate was flat; since the amount of driving rose sharply at the time, the per-capita rate soared, making it look like new policies were necessary.

      • Max Wyss

        One of the reasons why FRA rules get bashed a lot is that, instead of just specifying limits or numbers, they specify HOW these limits/numbers have to be reached. The rules may have represented state of the art when they were established, but they apparently don’t take into account progress (something any Standard must actually do).

      • Nathanael

        Actually, meat processing in the US is terrible by Euro standards, largely *due* to the bias towards giant plants and against small butchers, but anyway….

  • I’ve just finished writing a high speed rail update for my website. Please take a look at it and it’s companion site and contact me with any additions or corrections.

  • Drewski

    I was browsing online a few days ago. Looking at OSE (Greek Railways) site, which led to reading most of a long thread on another site. Even as Greece is going to hell, it seems that they will be able to complete three major investments. Those are 1) Piraeus to SKA Junction, 2) the various works on the Athens-Thessaloniki line (electrification, grade separation, tunnels), and 3) full build-out and electrification of the Athens-Corinth-Patras line.

    I realized then that, even as Greece is on the verge of losing any semblance of fiscal sovereignty, it’s still able to get more done for mainline passenger rail service than the US. The population of Ohio in a piece of land the size of Georgia. They have more real-life ongoing mainline construction and electrification than the entire US, with our 311 million people. Yes, much of the work there is paid for by the EU, but it doesn’t matter. It’s functionally no different than highway construction in Alabama being 90% funded by US DOT, except Greece is paying a larger share than Alabama. It’s truly humiliating, and it says nothing good for our future. They will have all-electric service in their two busiest corridors. We can’t even get 110 mph electric trains outside the NEC, and forget ANY practical passenger service outside NEC and Capitol/ San Joaquin corridors.

    • Nathanael

      The garbage isn’t even being collected in Greece. Armed gangs are conducting holdups, and the police are basically non-functional…

      …and Greece is doing better at constructing railways than the US? Well, I can’t really expect that to continue, but still, SAD AND PATHETIC for the US.

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