» In the shadow of the coming elections, California’s large commitment to its rail program continues to be rewarded by Washington; a focus on the Central Valley encourages long-term thinking about the state’s future train network.
Nine months after allocating $8 billion to intercity rail projects across the nation, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced an additional $2.5 billion in investments designed to encourage the spread of rail passenger transportation. Unlike the first expenditures, these funds do not come from President Obama’s early 2009 stimulus but rather from the FY 2010 budget. Though the FY 2011 budget may also include funding for this mode of transportation, that spending has yet to be agreed upon by the Congress, making today’s announcement the last definite federal distribution of rail dollars.
Each state receiving funds will for the first time be required to contribute its own funds to its respective project. The DOT has asked for 20% or more to be covered locally. The list of projects shows a distribution of funding spread across the country, though many of the states have received only relatively small planning funds so far.
As I discussed earlier this week, the decision by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to devote $800 million to the Tampa-Orlando high-speed corridor indicates that the government expects to use this Florida line as a model for the rest of the country once it opens as early as 2015. Now that funds have been allocated, it appears that were he to win, once-skeptical Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott may not be such an opponent as he once suggested, indicating that this project is highly likely to move forward no matter who wins next week’s election. The Democratic candidate, Alex Sink, is a strong supporter.
Yet the $715 million to be spent on California’s Central Valley high-speed line is of more consequence for the future of the country as a whole, since it will form the central element of the nation’s fastest and most comprehensive set of fast train corridors. When including the $2.25 billion the state received in January for the program and the $10 billion voters approved in 2008, the state now possesses enough funding to begin construction on a large segment of the planned 700-mile network — though the full $45 billion, 220 mph program is far from being completed.
The federal government’s decision to allocate specifically to the Central Valley corridor between Bakersfield and Merced suggests that Washington hopes to grow the fast train system from the center, out. In the first round of grants, the government failed to pinpoint exactly where it wanted California to begin construction — so the rail authority is currently evaluating where to spend those initial funds. Now that a large amount of money has been earmarked specifically for the Central Valley, the state should think seriously about investing most of its funds there for now. Unlike the San Francisco Bay alignment to the north and the route through the greater Los Angeles area, the Central Valley line has encountered little resistance from locals, so its completion could come more quickly. Showing that the state can move forward with actual construction, instead of simply more planning, would be a good move politically.
The large lead Democrat Jerry Brown has taken in the California governor’s race is good news for California’s project, since his Republican opponent Meg Whitman has repeatedly suggested that the state cannot afford high-speed rail for now.
Three slower-speed routes have also been granted major funds from Washington: $230 million for a new connection between Chicago and Iowa City; $158 million for upgrades on the line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo in Michigan; and $121 million for a link between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Each of these states will benefit from substantially improved service standards on these intercity rail lines, though none of them will be getting true high-speed rail in the foreseeable future.
Connecticut’s award is lower than the $220 million the state asked for and arguably unfairly small considering that the legislature has agreed to pay for almost half the costs of the project, a larger percentage than any other state except California. But the DOT is likely assuming that the Congress will decide to allocate increasing funds to intercity rail in the next budget and in the future transportation reauthorization bill; Connecticut seems likely to be one of the first recipients to complete the funding portfolio of an important extension of the Northeast Corridor.
|The U.S. Invests in High-Speed Rail, Round Two