The Administration Refreshes Its Push for a Major Infusion of Funds into the National Rail Program

» The Obama Administration hopes to invest almost $40 billion in new and improved passenger rail infrastructure over the next five years. Good luck getting that through Congress.

It’s an annual spectacle. The President releases his budget. The budget proposes a huge expansion in spending on surface transportation, particularly in high-speed rail. Administration figures testify on Capitol Hill, hoping to raise the specter of infrastructure failure if nothing is done. The Congress responds lackadaisically, with Democrats arguing that something should be done and Republicans doing everything they can to prevent a cent more from being spent, and ultimately no one agrees to much of anything other than a repetition of the past year’s mediocre investments.

Will things be different this year?

The question is particularly relevant because the U.S. Government’s rail investment program — its authorization for allocating funds to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will expire this year. Legislation supporting the FRA, as well as Amtrak, the national passenger rail corporation, and improvements to freight rail, is necessary to ensure continuity of funding. Previous bills have authorized funding over five-year increments. In effect, the bills set out how much Congress expects to expend over the next few years, and allows the House and Senate to avoid debating the issue for years at a time.

The Obama Administration has responded to situation by proposing a massive infusion of funds for passenger rail and the creation of a “National High-Performance Rail System.”

Total funding for rail activity, both for operating funds and capital projects, would increase from about $1.8 billion in 2013 to more than $6.5 billion in fiscal year 2014. Over the course of five years, about $40 billion would be devoted to rail improvement across the country, a massive expansion paid for with funds “saved” from ending military operations overseas. This would be headlined by a $5 billion “jump-start” stimulus for rail, part of a $50 billion infrastructure package the Administration is hoping Congress will pay attention to.

In many ways, the Administration’s bill is similar to past attempts at legislating major increases in funding for rail. In 2011, for instance, the government promoted a $53 billion plan to “win the future” with rail lines funded across the country. Yet Congresspeople reacted to the proposal with little interest — and members didn’t have to, because there was no authorization bill expiring. That’s what makes this year different.

The Administration’s proposal practically boils with ambition. Grants for new and improved rail lines would be heavily oriented (70 to 85%) towards “core express” alignments, which include only corridors where electric trains operating hourly at speeds of 125 mph and above run on their own, dedicated tracks. This says a lot about the Administration’s interest in focusing its energies on the “true” high-speed corridors, which at this time are only in development for California and the Northeast.

Grants in the proposal’s “rail service improvement program” would add up to $3.66 billion in the first year of activity but grow significantly over the course of five years, eventually reaching more than $6 billion a year. This would provide a substantial base of funds for serious rail projects.

But the initial allocations of funds would also ensure support for current rail lines. $2.7 billion in the first year of allocations would be dedicated to operating subsidies and projects that bring the Northeast Corridor to a state of good repair by 2025. Operating funds for Amtrak’s long-distance trains would be maintained, but those for state-supported (short-corridor) train lines would be eliminated after five years, in line with the existing law, to be replaced by profitable operations or more state support (or elimination). Amtrak’s fleet, which is on average 27.7 years old, would be upgraded, particularly in the Northeast, by 2018.

Some funding would also be provided for expanding freight capacity, reducing congestion (such as in the Chicago area), implementing Positive Train Control (which theoretically prevents trains from running into one another), and expanding access for the disabled. Much of the support would be dedicated to corridors owned by private freight rail companies.

All of the funds the Administration has proposed for an expansion of passenger rail service would do wonders for the nation’s train network. Yet even $40 billion committed over the next five years would hardly make a dent in the cost of the California High-Speed Rail project ($70-100 billion) and a new, high-speed Northeast Corridor ($150-200 billion). If the government committed similar funds over the course of five-year increments into the future, it would take a minimum of 27.5 years to complete these projects alone, with no spending on anything else. That’s 2041 before there’s true high-speed service on both coasts — at the earliest!

It’s true, of course, that any investment in new rail service will require financial and planning aid from local stakeholders, and these projects could be completed far more quickly if they were infused with local and state funds (as is the case in California).

Between Boston and Washington, the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC Commission) is tasked with developing a framework for allocating costs along the corridor. As part of that program, it has created a document that demonstrates the rail line’s critical needs and it will be looking to help Amtrak and the states better coordinate their contributions to the line.

If upgrades are going to be made to the line, it will be necessary to ensure that states along the corridor all benefit, and that they all contribute. Determining the best way for them to do that is an incredibly important task that has yet to be fully laid out. Should New Jersey, for instance, aid Amtrak in paying for a new line, if that clears capacity for New Jersey Transit’s commuter rail division? Should Delaware contribute to the cost of a new corridor if no fast trains stop in the state? How much should the states and cities along the line pay to run local trains down the intercity tracks? Before any serious aid is provided to the Northeast, there must be an agreed-upon system for Northeastern stakeholders to answer these questions.

If the FRA reauthorization provided increasing funds to a better managed railroad, assuming increasing funding from other sources (presumably including private players), there is reason to think that Obama’s program could provide substantial improvements to the nation’s foremost passenger rail corridor.

Ultimately, however, the question of whether the Administration’s proposal has any technical merit is irrelevant when there is no political backing for an increase in appropriations for rail service in the United States.

The White House’s claim that its reauthorization would be “paid for” is, quite frankly, a specious argument. To pay for infrastructure, the government wants to use money (“savings generated by capping Overseas Contingency Operations”) that it “would have spent” on foreign wars but that is no longer necessary because the country is pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet when the government is operating with a massive deficit, it’s hard to argue that that money is being shifted from one government use to another. It’s debt, pure and simple.

There are plenty of reasons to argue about the benefits of deficit spending, particularly in the midst of the continued recession, but let’s at least be honest about where the money is coming from.

There was an alternative — the Administration could have proposed a new source of revenue to pay for the program, such as an expansion in the fuel tax or the creation of a vehicle-miles travelled fee. That’s needed all sorts of transportation: The Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the Transportation Trust Fund (sourced from fuel taxes) will have a more than $90 billion shortfall by 2023 (and be operating in a deficit by 2015), imperiling any new spending on highways or urban transit.

Yet the Obama White House has shown itself hostile to any tax increase program that would affect lower- and middle-class families, and the Congress has certainly not pushed back with its own proposals. Thus the use of money “that would have” been spent on the wars to pay for the new transportation proposals. With little interest in increasing deficit spending, unfortunately, that proposal, too, is likely to go nowhere. The status quo will be reinforced.

This is a particularly sad state of affairs because the need is there, particularly in the Northeast. The FRA is currently developing a rail investment plan for the Corridor through a public consultation process, and a preliminary alternatives report was released this month, indicating a series of at least possible improvements. Amtrak, too, is desperately pushing for funds, arguing in recent weeks that the Corridor is suffering from an “investment crisis.”

Moreover, many Republicans in Congress have argued repeatedly that they are interested in funding improved rail service on the Northeast Corridor. Former House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica (R-FL) said in 2011 that “We have to redirect our efforts to having at least one success in high-speed rail in the nation. And that high-speed rail success needs to be here in the Northeast Corridor.” Though he didn’t propose any specific way to pay for those improvements, his interest is indicative of the GOP’s willingness to compromise. (And indeed, current Committee Chair Bill Shuster also has been a supporter of Amtrak.)

Perhaps the Administration’s policies should recognize this? On the other hand, the government clearly has no interest in shutting out three-fourths of the nation from rail grants.

Anthony Foxx, who will be nominated as the government’s next Secretary of the Department of Transportation this week, has proven to be a strong supporter of rail transportation in his position as mayor of Charlotte. But his ability to promote the Administration’s rail reauthorization bill has yet to be proven. Current DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, formerly a Republican Congressman from rural Illinois, has failed to produce bipartisan consensus in favor of more transportation investment over the past four years. How can Mr. Foxx, a strong urban Democrat, do so? The House remains controlled by the GOP and the Senate may shift in that direction after next year’s midterms.

There’s a lot to be excited about the rail reauthorization bill the Administration has proposed, but there is more to be skeptical of. We have a long way to go before there is solid support in Washington for more spending on rail transportation.

66 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Jim

    “Good luck getting that through Congress.”

    There is an alternative. If the Administration were actually serious about funding major passenger rail upgrades and if it were willing to have Amtrak rather than the States implement them, then it could use residual TARP funds, which have already been appropriated: Amtrak would issue $40B (or whatever) worth of securities which Treasury would buy, just as General Motors issued $50B worth of securities which Treasury bought when Obama was saving the automobile industry using TARP.

    There would presumably need to be a plan for Amtrak to spend the money, coordinated with FRA and the affected States and freight railroads, prior to the actual funding transaction. State contributions (and State-sponsored corridor operations made possible by the upgrades) could be negotiated as part of that plan.

    There are, I believe, on the order of $100B TARP funds which were appropriated but never spent. Republican Senators have warned that Obama should not use those as a “slush fund”, but it’s unclear what, if anything, they could do if he did use them to fund what has always been claimed as one of his policy priorities.

    • We’re talking about people who still keep the filibuster on the books. Creative use of past legislation to run around Congress isn’t how they’re used to working.

      • Nathanael

        Yep. As long as the unconstitutional 60-vote rule (so-called “filibuster”) remains in place, you know that a majority of the US Senate does not WANT the government to function.

    • tbert

      My understanding was that the deadline for repurposing TARP funds without Congressional consent had passed, and the Treasury website seems to corroborate that: “The authority to make new commitments under TARP expired on October 3, 2010.”[1]

      If that’s not the case, I’d love to know.

      [1] http://www.treasury.gov/initiatives/financial-stability/Pages/default.aspx (under the “read more” button)

      • Nathanael

        The Federal Reserve has unlimited funding abilities (it can print money), and after the TARP law, basically no restrictions on how it spends its money.

        However, the Obama administration is completely unwilling to consider doing anything which hints of “outside the Beltway” thinking, even to deal with crises which threaten the survival of the human race (such as global warming). So expect Obama to do absolutely nothing. It’s not clear that he gives a damn.

        • tbert

          That’s handwaving-ish negativity more or less for the sake of bitching; under what authority does the President 1) order the Fed, as an agency with heads appointed by but independent of the federal gov’t, to do anything? 2) to use money appropriated by Congress for a period of time which has, as the link I provided above, expired?

          There’s a process by which budgets are created and monies disbursed; the President is not a dictator and cannot do so by fiat. If you want movement, bitch to your Congressional representatives (which I have done); it’s not clear that bitching on the interweb is worth a goddamn.

          • Nathanael

            The President, in fact, IS a dictator and CAN do so by fiat. I don’t like it, but that is the world we live in and people should get used to it.

            Perhaps you haven’t noticed that the President currently claims the right to order “targeted killings” (i.e. assassinations) of American citizens without any judicial or legislative oversight whatsoever.

            This is the key power of a dictator.

            • Nathanael

              This is what makes Presidential claims of powerlessness so ludicrous.

              He’s already claiming the right to just murder people. That means he can do damn near anything.

              (Someone objects? They’re “terrorists” and he can subject them to “targeted killings”.)

              He has the power, much though I wish he did NOT have the power.

              Where he chooses to use the power is telling, as it shows what he actually cares about. Murdering Muslims in foreign countries, he cares about. Protecting big oil companies, he cares about. Protecting criminal bankers, he cares about. Transportation, he doesn’t care about.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Funding transportation he cares about. He signed the legislation removing air traffic control from the sequester didn’t he? But hasn’t been talking about what the sequester is doing to things like unemployment benefits. Or chemotherapy drugs. Or HeadStart. or….

            • tbert

              Jesus Christ, man; not everything is the apocalypse.

              This was supposed to be a discussion concerning whether or not TARP funds are available for the President to spend domestically, and descended into a non-sequiter concerning the expansion of drone programs outside of the country.

              For the record, I’d likely agree with you concerning the issues raised by that (although the fact that it exists at all, and was essentially begun in the 2 administrations preceding his mean that blame is shared by many). But to lay out the powers that have been acceded to the President, for good or ill, to prosecute military actions outside the borders of the US alongside the constitutionally-framed process for disbursing tax monies is utterly ludicrous.

              Take a breath, and figure out what in which context each of these is happening, and ask whether or not different rules are applied.

              • Woody

                Yes. I admire Nathaniel’s contributions to this site and others.

                But sorry, this has gone waaay off-topic.

              • Woody

                I admire him so much ima try to spell the name correctly, Nathanael.

              • Nathanael

                Really, if the President has the power to murder American citizens with no oversight, it overrides pretty much all other powers.

                I suspect that most Americans have, at this point, decided that they prefer Julius Caesar to the Roman Senate. Is this actually *surprising*, giving the way the US Senate is behaving?

                If Obama doesn’t take direct control of the budget, forcing Congress to obey his will, then likely pretty soon some President will, and at that point it will be *popular*. Obama is merely avoiding using powers which, in practice, he already has.

                The alternative is for Congress to regain its sanity and start performing oversight, but that seems extremely unlikely. Could happen, I suppose. I don’t see it happening; the US Senate really has degenerated into the Caesar-era Roman Senate.

  • Javaplace

    Thanks for writing up the upcoming bankruptcy of HTF and the funding source(s) Obama should consider:
    “There was an alternative — the Administration could have proposed a new source of revenue to pay for the program, such as an expansion in the fuel tax or the creation of a vehicle-miles travelled fee. That’s needed all sorts of transportation: The Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the Transportation Trust Fund (sourced from fuel taxes) will have a more than $90 billion shortfall by 2023 (and be operating in a deficit by 2015), imperiling any new spending on highways or urban transit.”
    Unless a new revenue source is proposed, it’s possible that all transit funding could be stricken from the HTF just as transportation enhanced was in MAP 21.

  • Ken

    If people who support rail got serious about the costs and the projects, they would probably have a better chance of getting projects funded. When you see poorly thought out projects such California high speed rail, it is hard to want to spend any money on rail projects. It also seems the money is being used to support poor labor practices. I agree that there is a need for rail improvements, especially in the north east. But the lack of serious thought for these very large sums of money makes me skeptical.

    • JO

      Why do you consider California’s high speed rail project poorly planned?

      It covers virtually all of California’s major population centers. The planning process so far has always selected the least expensive and practical routes where possible. The California High Speed Rail Authority does listen to local governments. When you consider long term needs and not short term, the project is cheaper and more efficient than conventional transportation, and makes a lot of sense.

    • Ken,
      One what basis are you criticizing the California HSR project? Route? Funding? Political support?

      As for route, it appears to be well-planned because it connects growing metro areas in the Central Valley to the Bay Area and LA. That will mitigate a ton of auto traffic and air pollution. It will also cut air traffic for the busiest sub 500 mile route in North America.

      As for funding, of course it and every other high merit HSR project could use billions more in funding. That shortcoming is a function of Republicans in Congress, not planning.

      As for political support, the governor, state legislature, and affected mayors all support the project. Only a handful of GOP legislators are against it. Even there numbers will wilt as project shovels turn, see
      http://soulofamerica.com/interact/soulofamerica-travel-blog/calfornia_high_speed_rai/

      • Ken

        Route, planning and practicality are all questionable. There is no cost benefit analysis that justifies this project. It does not appear to fit with the current or long term west coast lifestyle. No one can seem to identify the costs and the benefits seem to be inflated. There is a big question whether this project can be completed or even get to a point that it would be useful. But the expectation is that the US government should spend big bucks to complete the first part of the project. These projects make it very hard to justify any expenditure of additional federal taxpayer dollars.

        • tbert

          “It does not appear to fit with the current or long term west coast lifestyle.” Do you mean the ‘drive everywhere’ lifestyle? Because I would think that 2-in-a-row 2/3 supermajorities of LA voters choosing to increase sales taxes to fast-track transit projects would be strong evidence that that’s (rapidly becoming, if not having already been) a stereotype less based in reality than it is in media-driven perception.

        • JO

          The Government Accounting Office (GAO) found California’s ridership and revenue projections all reasonable. Its Amtrak routes are among the busiest in Amtrak’s system.

        • Ken wrote, “There is no cost benefit analysis that justifies this project. It does not appear to fit with the current or long term west coast lifestyle.” Beg to differ with you Ken, but 79 mph California Amtrak service already prove that people ride trains in NorCal and SoCal.

          Have you been stuck on I-5 Freeway traffic between SoCal and NorCal? Plenty of people, like myself, are fed up with the hassles for short LA-SF flights. We will switch from planes to trains for that sub-3 hour trip on day 1.

          In terms of financial justification, California is adding another 15 million people by 2040, many millions in the Central Valley route of California HSR. Given the existing I-5 and S-99 highway congestion and flight delays/airport congestion, there is no No-Build option.

          California has to either spend $125-160 billion on a second north-south freeway plus several airport expansions or spend $70-80 billion on California HSR, the only sustainable energy solution for the state.

          If you want to argue against HSR in America, find a case you can rationally defend.

        • Garl Boyd Latham

          Kes said:

          “There is no cost benefit analysis that justifies [the California H.S.R.] project.”

          O.K.; can you show us ONE “cost benefit analysis” which justifies autocentrism?!

          • Garl Boyd Latham

            I’m sorry; I can only guess why Ken’s name ended up being “Kes.”

            My error was certainly not intentional.

      • I want to drive

        Explain to me how people get to train station without cars in central valley?
        How do people get around when they arrive stations?
        Actually, except SF, all CA metro area are centric. you are not reducing the cars.
        Train lover love train so much but they can’t never get rid of cars. If they do, they will ask the government to improve public transportation in each metro area. Don’t make each metro area that you need cars to enjoy train ride.

        • tbert

          “Train lover love train so much but they can’t never get rid of cars. If they do, they will ask the government to improve public transportation in each metro area.”

          I honestly don’t see that as a problem; given that people are choosing to take transit instead of driving, it’s going to happen anyway: http://www.motortrend.com/features/auto_news/2012/1208_why_young_people_are_driving_less/

        • Woody

          The hope is that households will not need two or more cars per, but can get along with one less car and save $10,000 a year.

          The others in the household can share a ride, walk, bike, call a taxi, or use transit. If you’re in a residential part of Bakersfield and you have a ticket on HSR to L.A., usually you’ll be able to get family/friend/taxi/transit to drop you off at the station. You don’t need to buy an SUV to get to the train station and back.

          I know it must challenge your imagination, but truly, many millions of people in the US have lives worth living and don’t even own a lousy sedan, much less an SUV.

          • Adirondacker12800

            I’m was in a employee assistance class that our former employer sponsored for the people who were downsized. They had researched us and were able to tell us that if we broadened our job search to Manhattan we’d be making $10,000 dollars a year more. Which started the whining about then paying New York State and New York City income taxes. At the time those taxes maxed out at ten percent. So the choice was to take a $40,000 dollar a year job in New Jersey or %50,000 dollar a year job and pay $2,000 to $3,000 dollars in New York income taxes. And if you lived close enough to the bus or train station be able to get rid of the second car. Even if the car was a clunker the insurance, registration and maintenance on it would pay for your monthly ticket…..

        • Adirondacker12800

          Explain to me how people get to train station without cars in central valley?
          How do people get around when they arrive stations?

          The same thing they do when they go to the airport. Or the Greyhound station. Though the Greyhound station will probably be in the train station.

          • Jake Wegmann

            Even if a lot of people use cars to get to and from train stations in the Central Valley, what bearing does that have on the success of High Speed Rail?

            If you fly into LAX, you might take a taxi, you might get picked up, you might take a shuttle, you might drive your own car (if you’ve been paying for it to be expensively parked) or you might take a bus to get to where you’re going.

            How would this be any different with High Speed Rail? I fail to see the relevance.

        • I want to drive,
          Ever heard of taxis or families drop-off/pickup at the airport or train station? Bakersfield and Fresno have too.

  • Jos Callinet

    A major reason why Obama’s push for spending on rail is unlikely to go anywhere fast is because there is no public interest in it, unlike the Sequestration’s forced reduction in air-traffic controllers’ working hours, which caused a public outcry from influential business travelers over delayed flights. This public outcry forced even this do-nothing Congress to come up with at least a temporary fix (to get the public’s wrath off their collective backs).

    By contrast, the American public is seemingly quite content with the transportation status-quo, and it has many bigger fish to fry.

    Mr., Ms. and Mrs. Traveling Public could hardly care less about spending on rail in any form. Why? There is enough gasoline to go around for everyone, and although no one is particularly happy about current gas prices, they’re not hurting most people’s pocketbooks all that much, either (except those belonging to low-income people, who by and large have little influence on Congress).

    Unless and until large numbers of Americans pressure Congress and the Administration into funnelling significant federal money into rail, the air and road-centric status-quo will continue to prevail, probably for decades.

    It will take a truly catastrophic event to grab the American public’s attention and motivate it to press for major changes in transportation policy. As for rail’s helping the climate, any benefits rail could offer are unlikely to come soon enough to have any significant effect on global warming. (We’ve probably already crossed the point of no return on controlling and reversing global warming.)

    Let’s face it, Americans are and will for a long time to come continue to be a drive-and-fly nation. Trains, even high-speed ones, are to them futuristic daydreamings on a par with Star Wars fantasy.

    Given this political climate, rail is unlikely to receive serious funding or priority public support anytime soon. Instead it is at best likely to continue to stagnate, and may very well retreat in significance (especially if both houses of Congress fall to conservative Republicans next year, and succeed in de-funding Amtrak). Amtrak may soon no longer even have a national network – only a handful of regional state-funded routes and the Northeast Corridor.

    Commuter rail and some patchwork fixes to the Northeast Corridor are the only rail projects that are likely to receive any significant federal funding in the years ahead.

    This is the reality we rail advocates face. I see no way out of it.

    • Woody

      Fact is, polling repeatedly shows Americans support passenger rail, and want more Amtrak, not less.

      http://utu.org/2013/04/08/utu-poll-finds-support-for-amtrak/

      “A public opinion survey done for the United Transportation Union found strong support for Amtrak in three conservative, Republican-dominated districts where service exists. Less than a quarter of respondents favored eliminating Amtrak funding.

      The survey focused on three districts in Illinois, Missouri, and North Dakota. Even in these traditionally conservative districts – all currently represented by Republicans in the House of Representatives – 65 percent said that Amtrak funding “should continue at current levels or increase” when told eliminating federal assistance would lead to elimination of the service, with only 21 percent of respondents saying they believe funding for Amtrak should be eliminated.”

      We should avoid over-promising. Funds for Amtrak come to about 3 cents out of 7,800 in Obama’s budget. Even if we tripled that amount it wouldn’t make a dime’s worth out of 7,800 pennies. Adding 10 million riders from CAHSR would only add a third more to Amtrak’s current total. But it’s worth trying to do what we can do.

      We have a dysfunctional Congress, where a group of self-righteous ideologues are doing whatever they can to oppose anything that the Black Man in the White House favors. These haters have no interest in the public interest.

      But we should not expect or allow unreconstructed ex-Confederates and Ayn Rand cultists to control our politics forevermore.

      • Woody, I agree with your points, except I would argue that the same Republicans in Congress would fight just as hard against progressive urban-centric proposals by a “President Hillary Clinton” too. In earlier articles on this blog, a strong case was made that gives insights on the GOP rural vs. Democrat urban divide.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I really think some of these high speed rail projects like a 70 billion to 110 billion cookies for high speed rail in California and 150 billion Cookies for the NEC is quite a bit of some sticker shock which makes the tax payer wounder if they are getting scammed from all these contractors. In terms of the NEC they should a part of this 40 billion dollars to unplug the mayhem at Penn Station in New York City which would allow far more high speed train sets to run down the NEC. In terms of California I really think they should give it small pieces of money in till we heavy construction going on with the existing funds and the costs are not spiraling out of control like a bunch of Cookie Monsters who manage a cookie factory.

    Not to mention they should let all the smaller high speed rail projects get most of these funds in that that small high speed rail projects have not run out of control in costs compared to these 100 billion dollar beasts.

    • Woody

      The most recent proposals from Amtrak have been for making improvements on the NEC in stages. So Congress can decide to fund new tunnels under the Hudson, or new tunnels under Baltimore, or for ordering 40 new Acela II high-speed trainsets — without committing to spending anything at all anywhere else on the NEC.

      Breaking the effort down to pieces should help keep spending to levels that people, and Congress, can understand. Is it worth spending $2 or $3 billion to go faster under Baltimore by replacing tunnels built before the Civil War? Yes. So let’s do it.

      As for California HSR, the plans got approval by two-thirds of the California legislature and continue to have support from state and city leaders. There’s still a dust storm of criticism from the usual haters. But when the dust settles, it’s a good project that remains on track.

      I don’t see anywhere that costs have run out of control for the stimulus rail projects. The new Tappanzee Bridge looks like a multibillion dollar boondoggle, but that’s for cars, so it’s OK..

      • Ken

        My original point was that rail proponents are not serious about improving infrastructure. These are huge expenses and if they are used to maintain the status quo, such as existing labor arrangements and construction approaches, it will be a waste of money. This is the same issue with the Post Office, which needs to change with the times.

        There are always complaints about highway construction, but a good portion of the ongoing cost comes directly from the driver, either through gas taxes, gas sales taxes or tolls. A big reason I am a fan of the New York Subway is that the riders pay a good portion of the cost. Not so much for a lot of Amtrak. Improvements are required, especially in the Northeast. Proponents need to show some interest in making these changes correctly.

        • Woody

          Amtrak tried to negotiate its way out of some excesses in the existing labor agreements. It bargained its way to a stalemate, and the dead-locked issues went before an arbitrator chosen by the Bushies.

          Instead of splitting the contract impasses like Solomon — that unions get their way on half the paragraphs and the management wins on half — Bush’s man ruled in the unions’ favor on every single point up and down. This was a crude but effective attempt to sabotage Amtrak.

          So Amtrak is stuck with the contract that the Bushies wanted for it, because those zealots hated passenger trains more than they hated the unions. LOL.

          Meanwhile, under Obama/Biden/LaHood/Szabo/Boardman, Amtrak has enjoyed good relations with its workers. Meanwhile the trains are running better and the customer satisfaction measures are getting better. So I’m surprised to hear your complaining about the union situation. Nowadays that front seems pretty quiet.

          I don’t get the sense that there’s huge sums to be saved from labor. A few annoying work rules and what? Amtrak often pays less than commuter lines already. Could you break the unions and cut labor costs by 10% across the board? And save how much on total operations? How much compared to, say, lower operating and maintenance costs from getting new equipment?

          Amtrak has new electric locomotives on order that it expects to pay for themselves in 6 years with lower costs. My basic math tells me there’s a 16% cut in costs in there. Let’s look to make progress like that, and not look to pick fights that won’t win us anything.

          • Nathanael

            Amtrak’s union work rules are pretty reasonable these days, and apparently there have been more and more agreements to avoid “craft divisions” (improving work rules even more).

            The only railroad in the US I can think of where work rules are a huge problem is the infamous Long Island Rail Road.

            • Who died and transitioned all other commuter rail agencies to OPTO and POP?

              Amtrak has higher farebox recovery because it charges enormous fares and has a low peak-to-base ratio. The peak-to-base ratio is a property of the NEC, which mixes cities at ranges that promote many different kinds of travel (business, commuting, leisure, intercity day trip). The rolling stock utilization is still for shit because of the turnaround times, but it would be a lot worse if Amtrak were charged with running trains from Paris to Lyon and Marseille.

              • Nathanael

                I said a “huge” problem.

                OPTO is slowly but surely coming everywhere else.

                LIRR recently got rid of firemen.

        • Nathanael

          Ken: Amtrak has better farebox recovery (portion paid by the riders) than any local public transportation system in the US.

          So I suggest you recalibrate your assumptions and rethink your conclusions.

          If you actually add up the costs of road damage from buses, Amtrak arguably has a larger percentage paid by the riders than Greyhound, depending on how you measure. (It’s hard to compare Amtrak or Greyhound to cars, given that trucks and buses do almost all of the road damage.)

        • Garl Boyd Latham

          Ken said:

          “…a good portion of the ongoing cost [of roadway design, construction and maintenance] comes directly from the driver, either through gas taxes, gas sales taxes or tolls.”

          This statement is patently false. Still, it’s quite telling. If someone who is interested enough in transportation issues to participate on this site can make such a remark, there is little hope that the general public will be able to see and understand what is really happening.

      • Adirondacker12800

        Is it worth spending $2 or $3 billion to go faster under Baltimore by replacing tunnels built before the Civil War?

        It’s worth it to do it before the tunnel has a problem that stops anyone from using it and since we are going to spend a few billion make the new tunnel much faster.

        • Ocean Railroader

          What is nice about them using the two to six billion dollars a year in new rail funding is that they could use it to slowly chip away at the pile of much needed projects. Such as if you where to say to the Tax payers and supporters for Amtrak we are going to use three billion dollars of this money to replace a 1870’s worn out dangerous railroad tunnel with a modern high speed rail tunnel that can carry trains though it at over 90 to 100 miles on hour compared to 20 to 30 miles on hour that is a good argument for this project. Another one would be to use a billion to 500 million dollars to replace some of the large aging double track railroad bridges and replace them with four track wide railroad bridges which would also raise speed.Another good thing about buying a new railroad tunnel is that it’s a one time up front cost and will be around for hundreds of years after you build it.

          I really think the reason why Amtrak needs so much tax payer money is that it’s two to three more trains on the NEC ever handled during it’s live even at the peak of the 1930’s.

          • Given committed HSR projects in the NEC, CA, Midwest, DC-Charlotte, we really need to invest $36B/6 years. All of these projects are targeting 110-220 mph with higher frequency trains proven to boost ridership and approach or surpass profitability.

            BTW, Obama has gone down from $54B/6 years that he originally proposed in 2009/10.

      • Ocean Railroader

        I really think the reason they like the Tappanzee Bridge is getting to be built is the fact that they can make money off of sky high tolls off of it at five to eight dollars a pop. Along with that Amtrak really doesn’t have the political power that the cars running congress have.

        • Adirondacker12800

          The toll on the Tappan Zee already is five dollars for a round trip. To pay off 6 billion dollars with the traffic they are predicting the tolls would have to around 20 per round trip.

    • Nathanael

      Ocean: there shouldn’t be sticker shock. The US government is wasting roughly $500,000,000,000 on the military every year, about equal to the sum total military spending of every other country in the world.

      For that money, we are alienating the populations of many, many countries and breeding terrorists, while getting a reputation as a country which can’t win a war.

      As long as this is going on, NO government project which costs less than $100,000,000,000 should give anyone sticker shock.

      This is the only way I’ve been able to explain it to people who have sticker shock — point out that they’re looking at the wrong thing.

      • Andre L.

        While I might agree on parts of your claims, I find it naive and improper to use these kind of “since we spend 100x on program A we shouldn’t take a serious look of expenses of x on program B

        Even if one agrees with a far more robust transportation infrastructure investment plan for the Federal Government, that doesn’t mean because it would cost far less than military expenses it shouldn’t be scrutinized.

        Amtrak is not the most inefficient transportation agency, but just because it expenses are a “pittance” in the federal budget it doesn’t mean improvements shouldn’t be made (like subcontract dinning cars to external parties if this costs less than having federal employees cooking and serving meals, or adopting an automated-only (online, phone, machines) ticketing policy, or lowering wages of common occupations (not exclusive to railways) to current private market levels.

        • Adirondacker12800

          If AmtraK was to suddenly double it’s ridership it’s expenses wouldn’t double. There are many cases where improving service makes it break even and improving it more makes it profitable.

        • Woody

          Andre L., Can you direct my attention to a site anything like this one, where military expenses are scrutinized by tea party spending vigilantes and ordinary citizens? Or is such scrutiny confined to ideological targets — government programs that serve the non-rich?

          Anyway, thanks for letting us know ‘how much you think you know’ about how to save at Amtrak.

          You know, they must be really stupid at Amtrak if they’ve never thought of outsourcing dining car service. So thanks for suggesting they look into that.

          Wow, the savings from automated-only — no exceptions! — online ticketing. Of course, if grandma doesn’t have a credit card or debit card, or ever use one because she’s old and stuck in her ways and born poor and stupid, well, tuff for granny. And of course, Amtrak has already adopted online ticketing, now available to everyone with a pad or a smart phone. But now if Amtrak will just get rid of those last cash-only granny type hold-outs, that will make a huge difference … somehow. Sure it will.

          But let’s get down to it. You suggest lowering the wages of ‘common occupations’ to current private market levels. I guess you mean to the current market level for labor in China. Well, we’re getting there. But while I think I smell that your sympathies lie with those in elite ‘uncommon’ occupations, really the next step should be to cut the incomes of the barely rich. They’re a bunch of overpaid slackers, no doubt about it, and hard-working Chinamen deserve to take their swell jobs.

          If we can reduce the wages of everyone in this country, those who don’t work for wages might end up better off — or not. Surely they’d feel even more superior to all those who’ll be working for lower wages. That’s an important national goal, isn’t it?

          Raising the wages of the millions of underpaid Americans instead, well, that would probably be Socialism or something. Yeah, right.

          • Nathanael

            “Andre L., Can you direct my attention to a site anything like this one, where military expenses are scrutinized by tea party spending vigilantes and ordinary citizens? Or is such scrutiny confined to ideological targets — government programs that serve the non-rich?”

            Exactly my point.

  • Woody

    “Grants for new and improved rail lines would be heavily oriented (70 to 85%) towards “core express” alignments, which include only corridors where electric trains operating hourly at speeds of 125 mph and above run on their own, dedicated tracks.”

    Seems about right. Total spending of $4, $5, $6 billion would give a billion plus every year to CAHSR and the NEC. That’s a good start.

    I’m not sure the Amtrak organization or anybody is ready to simultaneously order 40 and more new Acela II trainsets, dig new tunnels under Baltimore and under the Hudson, build billion-dollar bridges in Jersey and Maryland, rebuild Penn Station, South Station, and Union Station, meanwhile revamping the catenaries and the electric system to power them, etc. So if they keep working on the Gateway into Penn Station and add one or two more projects a year, I’m OK with that pace.

    On the other coast, CAHSR has more federal money already granted (plus the bond issue money, plus a few hundred million to come from carbon taxes) than they can spend this year or next and maybe the next. So pour on another billion a year while the project picks up speed and reaches the “no-turning-back” point.

    Otherwise, the Keystone Corridor might qualify for some of that 70 to 85% share. But half a billion could get everything west of Philly city limits going 110mph or even 125-mph. Closer in, with the SEPTA trains sharing, maybe another half a billion? So $200 million a year to Pennsylvania over five years seems right.

    Sadly, there’s not that many “shovel-ready” opportunities to use the 30 to 15% that would be available for non-core, non-electrified routes. Forget Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Texas due to the crazies. Florida, too, unless next year’s election is good.

    New York State could use a billion NYC-Albany-Buffalo, if the plans have advanced and Gov Cuomo finds room in his heart for anything besides a multi-billion dollar bridge for autos boondoggle.

    Illinois could use a billion for more CREATE projects like Grand Crossing and the rest of the route to the Indiana border. It could use another billion to help finish the upgrades on the St Louis-Chicago corridor.

    Virginia and North Carolina are working on plans to rebuild a short-cut Richmond-Petersburg-Raliegh. Maybe they could usefully spend half a billion over the next five years. Maybe.

    But seriously, no state is really ready to spend half a billion here or there. They’d need a year or two just to get the final drawings made. And then the environmental studies.

    Best and fastest way to use the non-core, non-electrified money would be to order a thousand or more new NextGen coaches and a few hundred more NextGen locomotives to upgrade Amtrak’s currently operating trains.

    • California HSR breaks ground this year. It needs more funds secured this year for pre-lim engineering Bakersfield to Palmdale.

    • Anandakos

      Woody,

      You’re forgetting us here in The Soviet of Washington. We have plenty of opportunities for spending money toward reaching 125-level service. Once the Point Defiance Bypass is completed, we’ll need to begin adding a third track between Vancouver (WA) and Longview, then eventually all the way to Nisqually.

      If BC sticks with its commitment to the Seattle-Vancouver BC service and the threatened coal trains start to roll, there will be a need for capacity improvements north of Everett, possibly including a tunnel under Chuckanut Mountain.

      So, lots of opportunities…..

      • Woody

        OK, I’m ready to see more spending in Washington, and in Oregon too. But I don’t think they’re ready. Oregon hasn’t even picked the route to improve.

        The stimulus came when there’d already been a lot of planning for piecemeal upgrades on the Cascades. The windfall funds telescoped 10 or 12 years of projects into Obama’s second term. LOL.

        And when this round of work is finished, they’ll add two more Talgo train sets. Due to unexpected developments, they could get two more Talgo train sets currently in storage. But they’ll need more work to add capacity before they could actually put those wasted trains to work.

        Hope somebody is working hard on the next round of projects. (Maybe including a special task force in charge of drastically reducing the landslide risk.) But it takes a lot of time and planning to get “shovel-ready”.

        Let’s say that Washington, and Oregon, would be able to use any federal funds that come their way. Alas, we can say no such thing about Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa. If their DOTs had any partial plans in the files, the crazies have probably burned them.

        • Jim

          The MWRRI had fairly detailed plans, if I remember rightly. At least for those routes that were expected to generate surpluses — Chicago-Indianopolis-Cincinnati and Chicago-Ft Wayne-Cleveland — the States could be bypassed: Amtrak funded to implement an updated MWRRI plan.

          tbert upthread corrected me on the TARP money. But, whether the funds come from the Executive or Congress, in some cases it makes sense for Amtrak to implement rather than trust the States to.

          • Woody

            I hope the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative stuff is detailed. But I bet they don’t have the environmental clearances yet. So it’s the time frame that worries me.

            Completely agree that we should be moving away from the state-partners formula. Too many crazies, in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and now North Carolina ain’t looking so good.

            It should be the exact opposite of what the Brookings Institution naively advocated. Do NOT give control of funding to the states, so that the craziest one can kill an entire route.

            The million-plus passenger corridors should be developed by Amtrak with federal funding as part of the national system. Routes like Cleveland-, Cincinnati-, Indianapolis-, Detroit-, Des Moines-, Twin Cities-, and Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago are too important to let any one state veto them.

            • Woody,

              You hit the nation on the head

              “The million-plus passenger corridors should be developed by Amtrak with federal funding as part of the national system.”

              Amtrak & Obama have to sell the big vision, not the state-by-state vision. Simultaneously, they need to assure people that the goal is also to connect HSR to the West Coast.

        • Anandakos

          The Point Defiance website says that they aren’t fully engineered yet, so you’re right.

          The engineering for the third track between Vancouver and Kelso could be funded though. Since that is an active Class 1 Primary Main Route I think the the only environmental impact assessments that would be required would be at wetlands and river crossings. As I understand it, BNSF does own enough land to add a third track.

        • Anandakos

          Woody,

          There is one very shovel ready project in Washington which was just deferred for another year but could go with Federal funding: the replacement of the old Milwaukee Road wooden trestle just east of the new “Freighthouse Square” Tacoma station.

  • Dexter Wong

    It seems to me that in Northern California, Amtrak has replaced Greyhound as the preferred non-auto transportation. Amtrak California has more trips between San Francisco and Sacramento than Greyhound now, and Amtrak Thruway buses complement the trains for service up into the Sacramento Valley.

  • JO

    Some members of congress are starting to make noises of tax reform.

    Myself, I have always thought that funding for good balanced transportation infrastructure be it a gas tax, carbon tax, or vehicle miles travelled fee should be part of and included in any tax reform package. It makes perfect sense to me. But members of congress with their fossilized brains do not have the capacity to comprehend. And of course people do not want anything to come between them and their automobile dependent ways.

    I say open up, a balanced transportation policy and funding for its infrastructure will not hurt; and the benefits would be fantastic.

  • Anandakos

    The crash on Metro-North this evening illustrates the value of the FRA standards for commuter equipment. Fortunately the wreck was just a side-swipe resulting from a derailment at speed. But imagine what might have happened had the cars not been those ponderous, but extremely rigid FRA-compliant vehicles.

    They use a lot of energy, but they save lives in crashes. No doubt about it.

  • Felipe

    Hello,

    I see that this topic of government chosing to invest or not in transport comes again and again, so I think it might be interresting to mention that I have written a simulation game in which the player is the president or prime minister and can do anything he wishes, such as decreasing taxes or increasing the transport investment. I the end I think that it shows how the investment in rail infrastructure is a tiny portion of the government expenses and any willing government could increase the rail investment greatly. I utilized real data from governments around the world to calculate how much in average countries expend on various things and the investment in rail is insignificant in comparison to the rest.

    Anyway, the main point is that you can download it and have fun =)

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.felipe.truedemocracy&feature=search_result

    True Democracy 1.0 for Android. Download for free now to your Android telephone. In this game you take the lead of your country in a realistic political simulation game. You are free to choose any kind of political action that you want while in power, from increasing the retirement pensions to decreasing taxes. But beware that every action has an effect in your voters, in the economy and in your government debt. Real data from government budgets and economical series were utilized to create the model of the game engine. Guide your nation until the next election, when voters decide who takes the lead of the nation. If you lose the election, the game does not end. Another party will rule and you can wait until it an economic crisis or something else which brings you back to power!

  • Anandakos

    Here’s a nasty gut punch from a famously “activist court”: the DC Circuit. Go to Railpace Hot News” for a report on the court’s invalidation of the law which gave Amtrak the right to request penalties for failure to give passenger trains priority. The posting is on July 2.

    We are about to see reliability go into the crapper even worse than it already is, especially on Uncle Pete.

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