We got good news today in hearing of John Kerry’s introduction of the High-Speed Rail for America Act. This proposed bill will go a long way in helping the construction of California’s high-speed rail system. The passage of Proposition 1A in California two weeks ago means $10 billion of guaranteed state-level funding for high-speed rail. The system as initially built will provide 225-mph service from Los Angeles to San Francisco; future extensions will include lines to Sacramento and San Diego.
But $10 billion in bonds isn’t nearly enough to pay for the entire project – the likely cost just for the first phase is three times that. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been planning for this, and recognizes that it will have to find other sources, and so it has always recognized that its first challenge after winning public approval of the bond will be getting federal and private sources to chip in. While we’re a little skeptical of just how much private industry will get involved, especially considering the current economic climate, there is good evidence – compounded by news of Kerry’s bill – that the federal government will pay for a substantial amount of the project and make its construction by 2018 a real possibility.
Barack Obama’s stimulus plan will range, as predicted, from $150-300 billion dollars, a good sign, especially since Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen argued that it would “more likely” be in the vicinity of $300 billion, according to U.S. News. Considering that high-speed rail will play a major role in carbon footprint reduction (Obama campaigned for $150 billion over the next 10 years for projects that contribute to that goal), as well as produce a large number of jobs, it is possible that the President-elect will include specific funds dedicated to high-speed rail.
And, in fact, Congress has prepared the Executive branch for the execution of just such a proposal with the passage of this year’s Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, which also provided direct funds to Washington’s Metro and Amtrak. That bill has two significant provisions: one, providing direct matching grants to state governments that are interested in creating new intercity rail services; two, allowing for the funding of “high-speed” rail services, meaning anything traveling above 110-mph. These two elements essentially make it possible for state governments to get funding from the federal Department of Transportation for rail, just as they already do for highways.
The comparison with highways is an important one. Currently, states can receive up to 80% of funding for new interstate freeways from Washington. The Passenger Rail bill does not specify what percentage of the cost of new rail systems will be funded by the federal government, but if we consider rail to be a fundamental part of the national transportation network, 80% would be most fair. Realistically, however, such a constribution isn’t likely because of entrenched pro-highway and anti-rail forces, and that’s why California’s High-Speed Rail Authority pushed so hard to get the state to fund for itself the $10 billion bond, roughly a third of the total cost. If the state can argue that the federal government, in paying for highway programs, has set a precedent for future rail programs, it would be reasonable to suggest that the federal government cover two-thirds, or roughly $20 billion of the cost. If the Department of Transportation is unwilling to fund one project with so much of its budget, California’s congresspeople will have to consider earmarks to pay for the program. The system will not be built without significant federal dollars.
This is why John Kerry’s new high-speed rail bill, which he introduced to the Congress yesterday, is so important. We’ve been looking forward to this proposal for a few months now, and if passed, it would provide $10 billion over 10 years (of which $8 billion in six years) for projects in the Northeast and California, and $5.4 billion over 6 years for 10 other rail corridors around the country. Kerry’s press release quotes the Senator as saying that “A first-rate rail system would protect our environment, save families time and money, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and help get our economy moving again. The High-Speed Rail for America Act will help fix our crumbling infrastructure system, expand our economy, and match high-tech rail systems across the globe.” Indeed, we couldn’t agree more.
Yet, and we hate to say it, Kerry’s bill – if passed – won’t provide enough funding. California needs $20 billion over the next ten years, not $10 billion to be shared with the Northeast Corridor, which also needs significant improvement in order to provide adequate service. And though $5.4 billion will do some for the other corridors, especially in terms of planning, far more than that will be needed to actually implement those programs.
We need another Interstate system, this time for rail. Kerry’s bill is a nice dip into the pond, but it’s nothing compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in rail infrastructure in Europe and Asia. France alone is investing more than 16 billion euros (this is just the national contribution) for 2000 more kilometers of TGV lines by 2020. China is investing one hundred billion dollars for thousands of miles of lines. And Spain has a plan for 7000 km of high-speed lines by 2010. Those are the kinds of step we need to make if we want to a make a vision of alternative mobility a realistic one.