» The government has yet to identify a source of long-term funds for its highway and transit programs, let alone a new high-speed rail scheme. If it did, though, would it know where to direct the funds?
The development of high-speed rail networks ought to be a relatively simple matter: Once a route alignment serving a state’s biggest cities is selected in coordination with local governments, the governor and the state department of transportation makes a deal with the federal government in which each party commits to covering a certain percentage of total costs. If Washington were to establish a consistent funding regime as it did with the Interstate highway system, it could guarantee, for instance, an 80% match as long as the affected states chip in their respective 20%.
Unfortunately, it’s probably never going to be that simple.
Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government was rapidly expanding its size as the economy grew by leaps and bounds, today’s national government is paralyzed by mounting deficits, falling revenues, and a lack of popular trust. While President Dwight Eisenhower could promise in 1956 a steady stream of funds for the highway system over a decades-long period, members of Congress are now incapable of moving forward on a renewal of transportation funding legislation because of harsh disagreements about how to cobble together enough money to pay for existing programs, let alone new ones like high-speed rail.
Nonetheless, these hard truths haven’t stopped members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from demanding a dedicated funding source for high-speed rail in the next transportation bill. In a draft version of the bill released last June, Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) suggested a $50 billion to the intercity transportation mode over six years, with $450 billion more going to highways and transit. Without clarifying where money would come from, more than one hundred members of the lower chamber have signed a letter to President Obama asking for him to pronounce himself in favor of providing funding for fast trains over the long term.
This kind of stable commitment to the high-speed rail program is absolutely vital to the system’s development, as it will be impossible for major projects such as California’s Los Angeles-San Francisco line to be built without an agreement by the federal government to shoulder a significant portion of total expenditures.
Chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads Corrine Brown (D-FL) traveled through New York last week promoting the idea. That state’s high-speed rail program is currently in disarray because of the resignation of the state’s rail director Ann Purdue and claims of “lies” emanating from the Governor’s office, the Department of Transportation, and freight railroad operator CSX.
The Obama Administration is planning to unveil a framework for moving ahead with the next transportation bill before the summer, likely without a clear statement on how more funds will be raised in the absence of adequate financing from the existing source, the fuel tax. The hesitation to move past a user fee-approach to funding transportation is making a serious increase in infrastructure spending difficult to undertake. Even the proposed infrastructure bank, which has virtually unanimous support, isn’t going anywhere because of wildly diverging visions about its goals.
But all this in-fighting about how to finance the program adequately doesn’t answer the question of whether the government is capable of distributing project funds appropriately.
The biggest unknown is whether the American federal system possesses the appropriate mechanisms to make a national high-speed network possible.
If, as has been evident recently, Washington is reluctant to identify corridors for investment, decisions must be made by each individual state or by groups of states. At least under this Administration, a proposed national route network, identifying priorities for investment and specific goals for each line, seems unlikely. Places that don’t want high-speed rail won’t get it, and places that do — and are politically connected in the enormously influential Senate — will.
For train spending in big states, like California, Florida, and Texas, the process should be relatively simple to undertake: Once state-level administrators have selected a preferred investment and the federal government has agreed to its importance, a deal similar to the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start full-funding grant agreement can be signed. Done.
But the situation becomes far more complicated once multiple states get involved. Take the Northeast Corridor: despite clear evidence that the Washington-Boston mainline holds the most potential for increased ridership, plenty of affected states have been pushing for other investments. New York is focused on the Albany-Buffalo line, Pennsylvania on the Scranton-New York corridor, and Connecticut on the New Haven-Springfield connection. None of this is to suggest that those projects aren’t important, it’s just that they aren’t as essential as the mainline.
Yet the fact that states have to respond the the needs of their own constituents means that the region’s broader interests are ignored. Because states want spending within their borders, they’ll fight to prevent the federal government from using “their” tax returns for infrastructure construction elsewhere, even if those projects are indirectly beneficial. The federal government’s unwillingness to step in and promote routes as more important than others means that spending will be scattered around, often distributed to projects that shouldn’t be at the top of the priority list.
But if Washington is distributing billions of dollars in grants, it must identify which projects it thinks are most important, and its hodge-podge “designated high-speed rail corridors” map, filled with inaccuracies and gaps as a result of the uninformed interference of congressmen and senators, is not that. And even if it were to be equated with the 1955 Interstate highway map, itself the product of political maneuvering, states have not been given clear evidence from the national government that their investments will be rewarded with federal funds.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has no serious plan for how to implement nationwide high-speed rail. This comes to the detriment of the seamless and efficient distribution of funds.
Indeed, if Congress ever gets around to reauthorizing the transportation bill, it must take a step back and ensure that it will be capable of awarding funds fairly under a dedicated high-speed rail revenue stream before simply handing the money over to the DOT. Not producing such a preparatory plan will mean an eventual waste of money and time for everyone involved.
Image above: Shinkansen Platform in Tokyo, from Flickr user hikikomorix (cc)