High-Speed Rail

Details on HSR-NEC

We now can give you up-to-date and accurate information about the request for proposals that the United States Department of Transportation released today in New York City’s Penn Station. Secretary Mary Peters, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Representative John Mica (R), Representative Mike Castle (R), and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D) spoke. A video of the entire series of speeches is here. Here’s the important element of Mary Peter’s speech:

Today, I am announcing that the U.S. Department of Transportation will begin accepting expressions of interest to finance, design, build, operate and maintain high-speed trains on the Northeast Corridor and in 10 other federally-designated corridors around the nation.”

The designated corridors she mentions are the same as those already designated by the Federal Railroad Administration: Pacific Northwest, California, South Central, Gulf Coast, Florida, Southeast, Chicago Hub, Keystone, Empire, Northern New England, and of course, the Northeast Corridor.

Officially, the Department of Transportation released a “Notice Requesting Expressions of Interest in Implementing a High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Corridor” (PDF), which basically means that this isn’t a funded program, as we all know, but rather it is a program that is potentially fundable. The US DOT wants to find private corporations that are willing to help the federal government pay for, build, and operate the high-speed rail program. This means that whatever this “notice” results in, Amtrak may not be part of the formula. Ms. Peter’s emphatic support of private infrastructure ownership, buyoed by Mr. Mica’s obsession with how the government is wasteful, continues.

The requests will not have to be returned until September 14, 2009, though applicants will have to demonstrate their interest in filing by January 30, 2009. The report states that “FRA envisions this as the first phase of a qualification process that Congress may follow with more specific actions requiring particular proposals in one or more corridors,” meaning that there is no definate path to follow, even once the requests have been returned – Congress will have to decide what it wants to do here.

Proposals to be submitted will have to provide for the accomplishment of one or more of the following goals:

  • Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York must be completed in 2h or less.
  • All other eligible must have their current travel times reduced by at least 25%.

In other words, these goals would not result in many corridors in the production of high-speed rail. Travel times in almost all of the corridors listed above, even if reduced by 25%, would still be far too long. As a result, this request for proposals could provide better train service, but not necessarily great train service.

All that said, there is reason to be excited yet. Representative Mica said in his speech that he envisioned much faster trains, such as Maglevs, on the corridors, which would allow journey times of 1h between New York and Washington, for instance. We can envision, then, corporations returning proposals that are far more ambitious than those mentioned above, and which would actually result in a fast rail system in the United States.

Will we actually have to wait until September to find out, though? Seems like an eternity.

On the other hand, there are plenty of more down-to-earth proposals, like mass transit provision, we can focus on for the next few months as our excitement for high-speed rail grows…

One reply on “Details on HSR-NEC”

The last thing we need is another corporate welfare boondoggle taking the place of a public good. The cost advantages of privatization (when they exist at all – compare how much we pay to insure 5/6 of the country with what other countries pay to cover everyone) is generally achieved by attacking the position of labor and/or raising user fees.

In other words, government expenditures might be reduced (if we’re lucky), but the burden is redistributed on the backs of workers and a very narrowly defined pool of the beneficiaries of the service. Plus we have to pay to cover the executives’ million-dollar salaries and the operator’s insufferable advertising. A faustian bargain I don’t want any part of.

You’d think be now the project of commodifying everything would be adequately discredited, but I guess not. We have to actively fight to keep passenger rail in the public domain.

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