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After Two Years of Democratic Control in Washington, A Transportation Roundup

» Advances on livability and intercity rail were overshadowed by the inability of the Congress to legislate multi-year transportation funding. Republican control of the House beginning in January changes the equation significantly.

The 2008 elections brought the full reigns of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government under the control of the Democratic Party, power that enabled the passage of the stimulus, health care reform, and, this month, a huge package of tax cuts. Though transportation policy was clearly not the priority of either the Obama Administration or the Congress, the decision by voters last month to install a Republican Party-controlled House of Representatives is likely to alter the government’s approach on the issues quite significantly. Thus it is worth looking back to examine the record of federal government over the last two years.

The Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress have changed some aspects of federal policy significantly, advancing grant programs that reward cities for developing alternative transit systems and seriously promoting the national intercity rail project. A full-scale change in Washington’s approach to transportation, however, has yet to be accomplished.

The most significant lost cause has been, of course, the inability of the Congress to move forward on a multi-year transportation reauthorization bill. Though then-Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure James Oberstar (D-MN) proposed a draft of such legislation in June 2009, his effort went mostly unnoticed on Capitol Hill. It was never brought to the attention of the full House of Representatives and the relevant Senate committees never bothered to consider it.

The biggest problem: Party control over Washington or not, the Democrats could not come to any sort of agreement about how to fund transportation, an increasing problem because gas tax revenues are falling relative to both inflation and the public need. President Obama refused to consider raising fuel fees in the midst of the recession and directed his press secretary to shoot down a promising alternative, the vehicle miles traveled fee. This meant repeated temporary extensions of the expired transportation legislation, SAFETEA-LU, paid for through general fund expenditures rather than the fuel tax. These problems have yet to be resolved, and are unlikely to change over the course of the next two years.

Mr. Oberstar’s proposal would have transformed thinking about national transportation spending: It proposed shifting spending to two reserves, one dedicated to maintaining the existing system and then other to ramping up new capacity. Significantly, it would have required some allocations to be distributed in a mode-neutral manner, meaning that in some corridors, a public transit project might be picked by a local agency as the best use of funds instead of a highway expansion. This would have represented a major advance over current affairs, since currently roads and transit funding are divvied up into separate pots. But the effort went nowhere.

Thus in terms of allocations towards highway programs, transit maintenance, and new rail projects, the Department of Transportation has changed little. Several major new transit capital projects have been approved to receive major New Start grants from Washington, including two light rail lines in Houston, two more in Denver, and the San Francisco Central Subway, among others. And funding on the nation’s biggest transportation projects under construction, including New York’s Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, Dallas’ Green Line, and Seattle’s University Link, continued apace. (The decision by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cancel the ARC Tunnel was depressing for the public interest, but it reflected no failure on the part of Washington.)

Yet these projects would have probably been funded whether Democrats have swept into power or not. Other measures have been far more indicative of the changes that have taken place over the past two years.

The failure of the Democrats to move a transportation bill forward was partially resolved by the passage of the stimulus in early February 2009. That $800 billion bill provided a huge shot in the arm to transportation projects all over the country, giving $46.2 billion to highway, transit, and rail. Though highway expenditures continued to receive the majority of funds, their share of total spending was lower than in a typical year’s federal transportation allocations. Without these essential funds, thousands of transportation projects, underfunded by local and state agencies, would have come to a halt.

But the big news was the $8 billion the bill included for intercity rail, an allocation added personally by President Obama and far more than members of Congress had suggested in the course of their own negotiations. This infusion of funds, in addition to the $2.5 billion directed for such projects in fiscal year 2010, represented the largest-ever American public commitment to rail. Whether the program is ultimately refunded remains up in the air, especially because of the radical anti-rail stance of some Republican governors in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. Nonetheless, this funding is enough to ensure the construction of the first segment of California’s high-speed line and finance major improvements to Amtrak corridors in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and Washington. Florida’s fast train between Tampa and Orlando — to be the first such project in the country — is now fully financed and will be built, as long as new Governor Rick Scott (R) agrees to the program.

The stimulus put a (temporary) end to a highly egregious anti-transit rule that provided higher tax rebates to drivers than public transportation riders.

Finally, the stimulus provided to the Department of Transportation $1.5 billion in funding to distribute to projects at the discretion of the Secretary. These TIGER grants were offered to mobility programs that were not being funded under traditional means. When grantees were announced in February 2010, hundreds of millions of dollars were provided to freight rail improvement programs and upgrades to transportation terminals. In addition, streetcar projects in Dallas, Detroit, and Tucson received big endorsements, starting off a national streetcar boom.

The department used congressionally allocated funds to finance another $600 million in TIGER II grants unveiled in October 2010. These sponsored streetcar lines for Atlanta and Salt Lake City and several freight projects, among others. In addition, it provided funding for the demolition of a freeway in New Haven for the purposes of transforming it into an urban boulevard, arguably a first for U.S. transportation funding.

The Urban Circulator grants announced in December 2009 and awarded in July 2010 provided another $293 million in funds for bus improvements and streetcar construction. Though Fort Worth has apparently abandoned its planned streetcar, even after receiving a $25 million commitment from Washington, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and St. Louis — each of which also benefited from major allocations — are moving ahead. Several other cities, including Chicago, New York, and Stamford, got funding for downtown busways. Boston received $3 million for the nation’s first federally funded bike sharing program. Together, the Urban Circulator, TIGER, and TIGER II grant programs represent the government’s largest-ever contribution to small-scale transit projects, and the nation’s first major public commitment to the construction of streetcar lines.

Correspondingly, for the first time, the Department of Transportation has taken the idea of “livability” seriously and directed allocations accordingly. In March 2009, the DOT announced the Joint Sustainable Communities Initiative with the Department of Housing and Urban Development with the goal of coordinating federal transportation and housing expenditures. This was a major demonstration of the government’s commitment to the effort to plan mobility and development in sync, an idea that has been accepted by urban planners for years but largely off the radar of government officials.

In addition, in January 2010, the agency announced that it would be changing the way it judged transit New Start capital grants to move beyond the assumption that cost-effectiveness based on “travel time savings” is the most important indicator of a good transportation project. This policy move opened up the possibility of funding “slow” transit, arguably the best sort for the creation of walkable neighborhoods.

In Fall 2010, the Obama Administration began pushing for a new transportation bill. The President announced that he wanted a $50 billion “downpayment” on transportation infrastructure with the ultimate goal of constructing 4,000 miles of railways and 150 miles of runways, on top of renovating 150,000 miles of roads. This package — a sort of second stimulus — would be the first step in a multi-year transportation bill. But the Congress’ focus instead on tax cuts won the day, and this transportation focus seemingly disappeared.

Two years of Democratic Party power in Washington, then, meant quite a few improvements to the nation’s transportation policy-making, bringing to the fore projects that have been largely ignored by the government for decades. The Obama Administration and its allies in Congress have made clear their collective interest in funding projects that are founded on the idea that transportation can be an important element in the creation of livable cities. This represents a significant and positive change from past federal policy. But there is more work to be done.

Republican control of the House of Representatives is unlikely to simplify the extension of many of the new programs undertaken over the past two years — from high-speed rail to TIGER. Though these programs have faced some controversy and should be made more transparent, they have been well-managed, largely fair in their distribution of grants, and, crucially, have spread funding to cities across the country, in both Red and Blue states. In order to assure their future, President Obama will have to articulate their positive effects nationwide and advance ways to fund them that appear bipartisan and consensus-worthy.

Will he make the effort to do so when the nation has so many other pressing needs? Is there enough political support on either side of the aisle to maintain a major federal commitment to transport policies that do not revolve around the construction of highways?

I should note as a postscript that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who had no concrete previous transportation experience, has taken to his job quite seriously and is deserving of praise. Though in his previous post — as a congressman from Peoria, Illinois — he represented an area relatively unfamiliar with the mobility needs and problems of the nation’s biggest cities, he has proven himself to be a strong advocate of transit and intercity rail programs. Compared to the experience under President George W. Bush, Mr. LaHood has been practically a dream; Mr. Bush repeatedly asked Congress to reduce expenditures on Amtrak to zero (the legislature fortunately declined to do so) and the Secretary of Transportation in his later years, Mary Peters, almost shut the doors on one of the nation’s biggest and most important transit projects, the extension of the Washington Metrorail to Dulles. Similarly, Ms. Peters was unwilling to spent federal money on streetcars and hoped to replace most light rail plans with cheaper bus rapid transit lines. What a change we have seen in Mr. LaHood.

89 replies on “After Two Years of Democratic Control in Washington, A Transportation Roundup”

I feel they had their chance and they blew it in that 40% of these funds are now locked up in a 82 mile long high speed rail line in Florida that is as unstable in terms of it getting build poltically as the swampland that it runs though. At the same time another 45% of the funds are locked up in Calirfoinia which still hasn’t broken any ground and everytime they talk about the high speed rail line it seems to get people mader and mader and it hasn’t laid a singel railroad tie along with the Florida high speed rail line.

The only people out of this high speed rail group to hit the ground running are Illnoise which already has their new high speed rail line quickly under cosntruction and North Carolina and Washingtion and Oragon ,Vrginia to a lesser extend has started building something. What doomed the Wisconsion and Ohio projects was that they didn’t hit the ground running instead the minute they got the rail funding they should have at least ran some type of passanger train vs doing all these dumb stuidies on swamp land and other things.

As for Florida and Calirforinia they are in a very vunrable spot right now and their high speed rail projects could get killed at any minute of any day all it takes is some new teapot clown to come into office or clowns running the high speed rail program will bring it down themselves with them studying and not running.

Ocean Railroader,

I disagree with your implication on several levels. First 110 mph is emerging HSR, not HSR. Your approach suggests that America remain a backwater passenger train country by only upgrading existing 79 mph Amtrak lines to 110 mph.

Second, if we follow your suggestion, HSR would only exist in the Northeast and we’d be dissing the $9.9B state bond in California — the state most committed to true HSR. Fortunately, you exaggerate California’s HSR vulnerability. Our outgoing & incoming governor, US senators and representatives, state legislature and mayors are fully committed to HSR as the #1 statewide transportation project.

Third, even Fox News is a lukewarm HSR advocate. Their support support for HSR oscillates due to the economy, deficit and the fact that President Obama chose to spread the rail love for political reasons, rather than focus only on the NEC, California, Illinois and Florida 185+mph projects. Though Florida is currently less committed to HSR than California and Illinois, by 2014 it will provide the first HSR demonstration outside the NEC and public sentiment for HSR will build sooner than many people think. Just yesterday however, oil execs forecast $5/gallon gasoline in 2012, due to higher demand. So regardless of who wins the 2012 national election, MSNBC, CNN and Fox will heat up support to fund more 185+ mph HSR projects.

Fourth, since Amtrak is getting $1B/year for the next 5 years, LaHood and Mica expect Amtrak to announce short term plans for improving the NEC speed, frequency and on-time performance — if only to request more funds.

Fifth, Tampa-Orlando opens in late 2014 and Florida governors and senators keep their jobs by maintaining tourism. And as proven in Summer 2008, fewer people will drive due to higher oil prices. Every Florida governor and senator after 2014 will demand a DC-Charlotte-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando-Miami HSR extension that gives tourists a faster-than-driving alternative. So I agree with 110 mph upgrades between DC-Charlotte, ONLY if planned as a 1st phase prelude to a 2nd phase that extends 185+mph HSR from DC-Richmond-Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando-Miami. I’m sure Mica would warm to that as well.

If Chirsty can knock down the eight billon Acess to the Regions Core then Florida’s high speed rail funding project can still be knocked over far easer then the Acess to the Region’s Core in that the Acess to the Region’s somewhat broke ground but kind of not really while the Florida high speed rail line hasn’t broken ground or laid any railroad track so in away it is easyer for it to fall apart then the Acess to the Region’s Core.

What could save Florida’s project and what could have saved the Acess to the Region’s Core was if the contractors had enough sense to start drilling out the main tunnels under the Hudson River itself instead of going after the small stuff so it would have made it more of moving target to stop such as if you stop the project while they are digging out small highway overpasses and doing studies then it’s easer. But if you stop a tunnel project while say 40% of the railroad tunnels are already being dug out under the Hudson River itself it would make Chirsty look like more of a moron then of a tea party goverment waste genious to go after a half finished river tunnel then a complex of overpasses. As for Florida if Florida has a railroad bed being laid down the center of the I-4 meadian with railroad ties on it and they stop building it would make the people who stopped the project look more dumb and the suporters look better. As for now Flordia hasn’t built any thing so if it gets stopped now then the people who don’t want it will get more suport for stopping it and would look more smart like what happened in Ohio.

I see no evidence that the Florida governor of dumb enough to turn down $2.35B of federal grants while we’re near 10% unemployment. If he did, he has nothing to gain and plenty to lose.

He knows the USDOT would quickly redeploy the funds to California, Illinois and possibly Virginia/North Carolina.

Energy sentiment has measurably shifted since Jeb Bush was gov. Floridians are no longer indifferent to oil drilling in their backyard, even if its for transportation. The polls I’ve seen indicate a solid majority want Florida HSR and many wonder why Orlando-Miami isn’t included in Phase 1. Florida Chamber of Commerce also prides itself on clean industry, electric-powered HSR running down I-4 Freeway fits the bill perfectly.

The Florida gov doesn’t want to give Obama any credit, but he has a stronger reason not to pull the rug from under HSR advocate Republican Mica as he takes over the Congressional Transportation Committee either.

As part of ARRA, Florida got 85% of funding for Phase 1. Some time after the 2012 election, Florida will apply for 80% of federal funding for the Orlando-Miami segment.

Governors like to embellish their legacy with transportation projects that help the state’s top employers. So he doesn’t want to piss off the most famous project backer and largest employer in his state, Disney who is also paying for its own HSR station.

The Florida gov is politically savvy enough to claim credit with voters that he got ~ 90% of this project paid for by other people’s money and HSR is likely to operate at a profit once the Orlando-Miami segment opens.

NET: There are no dynamics to produce New jersey ARC or Ohio/Wisconsin HSR fiasco.

Its Mickey. Sure, I’m no whiz hand on Florida state politics, but I reckon Mickey swings more weight than the road-building lobby ~ if there was a large business interest similar to Disney in either Ohio or Wisconsin in favor of their Emerging HSR projects, they would not have been turned into political footballs ~ and, indeed, when Walker started to slop over into attacking the Chicago/Milwaukee route, business leaders in Milwaukee set him straight and he stopped doing that.

Apparently the Madison, Wisconsin business community, who knew damn well they *needed* the train, was considered to be worth shafting by Walker. Sigh.

I feel they had their chance and they blew it in that 40% of these funds are now locked up in a 82 mile long high speed rail line in Florida that is as unstable in terms of it getting build poltically as the swampland that it runs though.

False premise. It will not be locked up in Florida until Florida commits to going ahead. If Florida turns it back, it will go to another state. Florida either takes it, or it goes to another state.

At the same time another 45% of the funds are locked up in Calirfoinia which still hasn’t broken any ground and everytime they talk about the high speed rail line it seems to get people mader and mader and it hasn’t laid a singel railroad tie along with the Florida high speed rail line.” The noise generated by the opponents does not translate into political strength: confer Strong Support in State Legislature for HSR. You are treating the noise being generated by HSR opponents in their desperation to keep the project from breaking ground as the same as a groundswell of opposition ~ but there is no groundswell.

The only people out of this high speed rail group to hit the ground running are Illnoise which already has their new high speed rail line quickly under cosntruction and North Carolina and Washingtion and Oragon ,Vrginia to a lesser extend has started building something. What doomed the Wisconsion and Ohio projects was that they didn’t hit the ground running instead the minute they got the rail funding they should have at least ran some type of passanger train vs doing all these dumb stuidies on swamp land and other things.” What doomed the Wisconsin and Ohio projects is that they got turned into political footballs in gubernatorial elections in the aftermath of the biggest recession since the Great Depression, and the protest vote against the incumbent governor in Ohio and incumbent party in Wisconsin swept the party who had made the Regional HSR corridors into a political football.

Indeed, you list the tremendous success of this policy ~ in the face of a determined effort to turn what had once been a bi-partisan issue into a partisan political football, the majority of the projects have come through the challenge unscathed, will be built, and their results will help build greater support for these systems in the future.

And this was just 20% of the transportation segment of the stimulus, which for some bizarre reason was well under 10% of the stimulus.


I agree with you that HSR (plus Rapid Transit and Sustainable Energy build projects) should have received larger shares of the ARRA funds. But its water under the bridge now. Lets hope that a more popular Obama+LaHood can coalition with Mica to spell out a better balance or HIghway maintenance + Aviation + Transit + HSR + Freight Rail funding.

Can Oberstar’s $50B/6 year HSR proposal be revived & repackaged by Mica as $40 Billion/6 years? That amount would be a Godsend to NEC+VA+NC, California, Florida and Illinois, Pacific Northwest and Michigan.

I’m skeptical whether Mica can get it out of his committee, with the main policy focus of the Republican party being to see that President Obama is a one-termer. The content of the accomplishment does not matter so much as the fact that it would be covered in the press as an accomplishment.

But I’m no deft hand as a beltway prognosticator, so I dunno, maybe. It’d be nice.

Though imperfect (lack of a comprehensive Interstate HSR map & vision), Ray LaHood has been a blessing to Emerging HSR, HSR and Rapid Transit advocacy. He really understands the value add of 185+ mph trains over multiple 110 mph trains.

Getting more of these projects continuously funded and reading how he will work with Rep. Mica is another challenge.

What’s the value of 185mph in 20 years over 110mph in 4 years? Currently The US rail system is so third world it’s not even funny, some lines are running at like 40mph average speed.

For example the Montreal-NYC stretch, which is 400miles, takes 11hours – less than 40mph on average. At 110mph it could be done in 5 hours – faster than any car, and competitive with airplanes (if travel time to airports is included). Given the abysmal state of rail (except nec), I’d say there would be quite a value of creating a “faster than the car and bus, but much more comfortable than anything” brand.

More to the point, what’s the value of treating complementary alignments as if they were rivals? A train that runs on an Express HSR corridor can run through onto a 125mph electrified Regional HSR corridor … and a 125mph electrified Regional HSR corridor can be achieved with incremental upgrades from a 110mph Emerging HSR corridor.

A big cost driver of the 185mph Express HSR corridor is the full grade separation ~ not only are no unhardened level crossings allowed above 110mph and no level crossings at all allowed above 125mph, but both regulations are quite reasonable and so it would be a foolish waste of effort to try to build a political coalition to try to overturn them.

And the density of Express HSR corridor that is justified is lower than the density of Regional HSR corridor that is justified, because beyond the major metro corridors, it is running through to multiple Regional HSR origins and destinations that can justify an Express HSR corridor.

We need both, both are useful, both use labor and equipment resources that we have in abundance and conserve material and energy resources where we face scarcity, and both provide network economies to the other. There is no fundamental reason not to do both.

“And the density of Express HSR corridor that is justified is lower than the density of Regional HSR corridor that is justified, because beyond the major metro corridors, it is running through to multiple Regional HSR origins and destinations that can justify an Express HSR corridor.”

BruceMcF, thanks for the correction. Express HSR, Regional HSR and Emerging HSR corridors need not be rivals and may be constituent parts of a well planned network.” Three examples follow.

1. NYC-New Haven is unlikely to run faster than 110-120 mph, even after a 185-200 mph Northeast Corridor upgrade.

2. Chicago-Kalamazoo-Detroit-Toledo should be upgraded to 125 mph and in the future, connect to a 185+ mph Cleveland-Toledo-Ft. Wayne-Chicago Express HSR line.

3. LA-Anaheim-Irvine-Oceanside-San Diego should be electrified and upgraded for 110-125 mph service and become part of 220 mph California HSR service.

Note that if the Pittsburgh/Cleveland/Toledo Lakeshore is developed as an initially 110mph then 125mph corridor, an Express corridor could run from Chicago through north central Ohio and junction with the 3C corridor between Beria and Mansfield … that would reach to downtown Columbus via the Columbus/Detroit alignment, and downtown Cleveland via the 3C. Extending that past Akron/Canton airport to a junction between Youngstown and Pittsburgh would then reach downtown Pittsburgh.


You make a well-reasoned recommendation and I hope the USDOT initiates a planning study like they are doing for LA-Phoenix and Phoenix-Las Vegas corridors, even though Ohio Senators and Governor have not been HSR supporters.

Then lets let hope the current Ohio governor wises up or get replaced in 2014.

“Ocean”, I always enjoy reading your comments and your insights, but happily, I have to agree with “ThomasD” as to the positive, over negative implications of recent events. By no means do I suggest that what took place in November was a good thing for the development of transit alternatives and high speed rail in the US. However, I believe that the long term effect of this effort will be driven by an ever-exponentiating (I you will allow me to make up a word…) ground-swell of public sentiment acknowledging that the path we are advocating is the best course of progress.

I agree less on “ThomasD’s” insistence about 200 mph vs 110mph. I’m not arguing about the facts he raises, just the importance. France built the TGV network superimposed over a well established and extremely effective standard rail network, very much like what we had in the States up through the mid 1950s. There are many (including many die-hard rail transit enthusiasts) who firmly believe that trying to develop a very high-speed rail network without first fully developing the standard rail base is doomed to fail. I do not completely subscribe to this idea, but I can see many merits to their argument which must be fairly considered. Devoting resources towards projects that will enhance the usefulness and operation of standard rail projects, in regions where providing strategic connectivity can benefit the re-building of a nationwide network is a good and valid use of rail funding. Building a Continental high-speed rail network is a project that will take the better part of the next half-century to fully implement. It is much larger than the next legislative term.

At the same time, I agree with Yonah that the failure of Congress and the Administration to come to grips with a long-term transportation plan, and with it, a valid, workable funding mechanism will have the most major negative effects on our long-term efforts. I just hope that the vision and persuasiveness of Ray LaHood continues to reap positive rewards…
Happy New Year…

“Devoting resources towards projects that will enhance the usefulness and operation of standard rail projects, in regions where providing strategic connectivity can benefit the re-building of a nationwide network is a good and valid use of rail funding.”

Yes, like the Ohio and Wisconsin projects. Not so important in isolation, but the additional network connectivity, together with some service improvement on existing routes could make them very useful links.

Network connectivity is the key word. If you lay out a map of the Midwest Hub, Keystone Corridor and Empire Corridor, there are four obviously missing corridors, and those four corridors together make up the Ohio Hub.

And while Express HSR cannot run directly onto the shared track of a 110mph Emerging HSR system, the Emerging HSR system is a set of incremental upgrades away from an electrified Regional HSR system with dedicated passenger track, and an Express HSR can definitely run onto that.

From Chicago to Minneapolis / St. Paul, the three strongest intercity transport markets are Chicago / Milwaukee, Milwaukee / Madison and Chicago / Madison. So getting the corridor established from Madison to Milwaukee is also a reasonable first step to Regional HSR from Madison to Chicago … and a 125mph corridor from Madison to Chicago makes a corridor from Chicago to Minneapolis / St. Paul much more viable due to the network economies.

aw and BruceMcF,

You both underscore strategic reasons why the Wisconsin and Ohio fiascos were bad for our nation when we think strategically about an HSR network. From a “what can be learned from our mistakes” perspective, we should acknowledge three larger failures that happened under Demos control of transportation funding:

* Aside from California, Florida and Illinois true HSR projects, the word should have been sent out in Feb 2009, that only Emerging HSR projects (110 mph top speed /75+ mph average speed) would also be funded. No intercity passenger rail project should be funded that doesn’t at least travel faster than freeway driving over 150 miles.

* More ARRA funds should have be allocated to HSR projects. I still don’t understand how Obama/Biden and Oberstar dropped the ball on this.

* An Interstate HSR Network Map should have been published in October 2010 with the big ARRA funding awards (more about this point in another thread response below). In corridors between major metro areas, gaps should have been closed and indicated “HSR Planning Studies underway” like they have for LA-Las Vegas and Phoenix-LasVegas on

The $8b was because that was the amount that was in the act for allocation by the DoT in conference committee on the bill ~ specifying that it be HSR was an intervention on an already agreed to amount.

More disappointing was that they agreed to reduce HSR from the $2.5b appropriated in the last fiscal year budget to $1b in the continuing resolution. Getting it to $2.5b between the White House proposal of $1b, the House passing $4b and the Senate passing $1.2b was a win, and they seem to have squandered it.

Only California and Florida were Express HSR ~ all the other funds were for work on Emerging HSR corridors. But when you say that its going to be a competitive grant application, you have to expect that the grant applications will have a bias toward higher benefit/cost ratios, rather than higher political sex appeal.

“There are many (including many die-hard rail transit enthusiasts) who firmly believe that trying to develop a very high-speed rail network without first fully developing the standard rail base is doomed to fail.”

If this were still year 2000 before Acela, you might have a reason to doubt. It will succeed because Americans already support Acela at only 135 mph top speed, 82 mph average speed, 15 daily express trains with 85% OTP with gasoline under $3/gallon.

Aside from that proof point, do you doubt oil execs who forecast gasoline will rise to $5/gallon in 2012? Do you you doubt that greenhouse gases are causing glaciers to melt faster? Why are all the other leading nations targeting completion of 95-100% of their HSR networks by 2025?

My background in product management taught me to read forecasts, trends and comparative markets to predict product demand. Reading the trends of Peak Oil, Global Warming and Population Growth, I can see electric-powered HSR demand rising faster than many American rail buffs believe. And I’m not alone. China, Japan, and the EU are rapidly building HSR infrastructure to avoid the boiling frog scenario. They also know that frequent 185-220 mph trains are having a transformative affect on business and leisure travel that helps secure their economies.

If we wait for additional Tampa-Orlando-Miami and LA-SF proof points by 2020 before accelerating 185-220 mph upgrades/new lines, oil used for HSR construction will be WAY more expensive. Knee deep in the boiling frog scenario with higher construction costs each year, we’ll be looking at Interstate HSR Network completion by 2040.

So to avoid/minimize the boiling frog scenario, America must build a 185-220 mph Interstate HSR Network connecting our Top 40 Metro Areas complimented with 110 mph Emerging HSR lines connecting the remaining Top 41-100 Metro Areas by 2030. We’ve wasted too much time already, see

It will succeed because Americans already support Acela at only 135 mph top speed, 82 mph average speed, 15 daily express trains with 85% OTP with gasoline under $3/gallon.

I’m going to Washington DC in a few weeks. Amtrak gets me there in faster than driving ( Google says it would take 20 minutes less to drive. Google hasn’t accounted for traffic outside of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington DC. Or rest stops, I suspect sometime in an 8 hour trip I’d have to stop. ) I get to nap, I get to go to the cafe car, the walk to the train is literally steps from the car at my station… I get to nap! The fare is competitive with driving if driving is 25 cents a mile.

Flying is not an option. The low fare flights involve transfers. Most take longer than driving or the train. The lowest fare I can find – with a quick search – is twice the price of Amtrak. The bus is an option but it’s only 30 bucks less than the train and it takes longer.

There was a book called Cabell’s Canal it was about the rise and fall of the James River & Kanawha Canal and it was about how Vrginia under took building the James River & Kanawha Canal system and what doomed it. Most people would think at first that the canal system simply died do to the trains coming in but that was not the case in this. What happened was the builders promoused the public at the time they could build a grand system that would cost everyone four million and they said they could everything built in 20 years. What really ended up happening was that they knew the system would cost 14 million to build. When they started building it progress was so slow and they ran out of money so fast along with that they cut a lot of corners they killed off many of it’s core suporters who wanted a full modern canal system and ended up with a half finished system. That lived from 1820-1880.

As for how this relates to high speed rail they are promousing us a grand high speed rail system like Europe and China with 180 mile on hour trains and instead they tell us like in Vrginia we can have 110 mile on hour trains in Vrignia by 2021 not 180 mile on hour but 110 mile on hour which sounds exactly like they said in the 1830’s we can have this built in 20 years. And the Kanawha Canal effect will be felt in Florida when they come in and get left with only a 80 mile section of track and a great unfinished section down to Miami like the Kanawha Canal tried to do by going west past Lynchburg Vriginia to the Kanawha River in West Vrginia 200 miles away.

The Kanawha Canal effect could also happen to Califorina in that me as high speed rail suporter and watching and waiting and nothing is happening and it’s starting to sound that they might get started on it. What will happen like with the Kanawha Canal is that it won’t get enough funding to finish it so it will most likely have most of it’s sections unfisnished and will make a good home for the existing Amtrak severice which is the real beast of burden.

The funds locked up in these two large projects could be better used across the US as a whole on the existing Amtrak lines in that only 400 million of that could up grade Vrginia’s plans of reaching a 110 miles on hour from 20 years to say three or five years. If the congress wants these high speed rail projects running across the US they should stop saying down payment and put up some real money such as something that is at least 20 billion or 50 billion over the next three or four years and then we won’t have our nation’s high speed rail projects suffer Kanawha Canal promouses and real funding Syndrom.

Your analogy is a loose one.

First, the fact that the planning process in the CAHSR runs in real world time rather than on internet time does more than cause frustration among people who want to see instant results: it also provides multiple opportunities to intervene to prevent a project from going in the direction that you fear.

Second, you set to one side that systems will be up and running and offering real transport improvements to real people, which combined with the multiple oil price shocks we are going to be facing in the next decade will make ordinary unaffiliated independent voters less susceptible to Republican scare tactics.

Third, the close analogy would be if a network map had been laid out and a statement was made, “we are going to build this nationwide system”. Instead of multiple corridor projects, each justified on its own basis and none especially troubled if some other corridor project did not go ahead, that would have presented one single target for the political opponents of “any successes happening, never mind what they happen to be” to take aim at.

Instead, what the current strategy of bottom up planning inside a national framework presented to the Oil Lobby and other opponents of oil-independent transport was a game of whack-a-mole, and while they were able to knock some projects off, they did not come close to derailing the project as a whole. Over the next two years, ground is going to be broken, service is going to get started, people in neighboring states are going to start wondering why their state doesn’t get the good stuff … and the political foundation is laid to getting an infrastructure bank up and running so that incumbents have the chance to bring home the pork to their constituents.

I see your point, but I also understand the frustration of people seeing seemingly isolated projects and wondering why we could have an Interstate Highway System, but not an interstate HSR system. Like China, for example. Huge amounts of government money have been thrown at roads, especially since the early 1930’s, and this immense investment helped destroy passenger rail in the US. We have a US DOT which is generally willing to pay for even the most insane expenditures (Boston’s untolled Big Dig is the poster child), and an FAA which establishes uniform standards for commercial aviation. The Federal Rail Administration is primarily interested in “safety” standards which appease companies running 2-mile-long freights (full of coal, at that). It’s disconcerting and disheartening when you live in the world’s wealthiest country, yet your country is forced to take a stealth approach to a segment of its infrastructure. Other countries don’t do this, yet we’re forced to because…well, it seems that we’re forced to because our incoming House is still in thrall to a minority of representatives pushing Big Oil’s interests over those of the nation. That’s a poor starting point.

Everyone seems to forget that the Interstate Highway System was not built in a vacuum: the Federal Government had been subsidizing highway construction since the 1930’s, including early forerunner to the Interstate Highways in the form of divided, limited access expressways. The Interstate Highway System was launched in the third decade of Federal subsidy of interstate highways.

The 1990’s HSR legislation only set up a framework for planning ~ unlike the Federal subsidies in the 1930’s, there was only a tiny trickle of funding attached. IOW, today wrt HSR is the equivalent to the 1930’s wrt federally funded highways.

So, just as forward thinkers were thinking about a national network which eventually gave rise to the Interstate Highway system in the third decade of Federal highway funding … while the government was establishing the US Route system from existing main roads with a few strategic improvements …

… we are at that stage today with HSR. We could have been further advanced, if the effort in the 1990’s had not been successfully derailed, but we aren’t, and a grand national route map would be as premature at this point in time as an Interstate Highway system would have been in the 1930’s.

And the High Speed Ground Transportation act of 1965 promised sub two hour trains between NY and DC by the 80s….. Took my first Metroliner trip in 1976. It was faster than Acela is today.

Certainly the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was not earlier than the 1930’s. What amounts of Federal funding are you referring to per annum in the 1920’s?

You are correct however, that while not at the scale of Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act or of the Hayden Cartwright Act of 1934, the Phipps Act of 1921 had road spending amounting to about 0.1% of GDP, which was a far bigger share of our economy than the HSR spending that has been appropriated in the past three years.

So it may be more accurate to so that it took over three decades between the first substantial spending on Federal highways and the establishment of the Interstate Highway System which so many people want to replicate for HSR without first laying the foundation for such a program to succeed.

The first federal aid highways were in the late 1910s, I forget in which year. The federal government gave 50/50 funding, as long as the roads followed certain standards such as minimum width (which escalated over time) and were not urban. By the time the US Highway network came, the quality of the designated roads was quite high, and the railroads began to abandon regional branch lines, which became uncompetitive.

Relative to GDP, it was equivalent to $2.5 billion today (in the 1920s, government spending on transportation as a percent of GDP was about the same as today). And it sufficed to give rural roads 50/50 funding.

I’ll note that the fact that $75m/5yrs is roughly equivalent to $2.5b as a share of GDP, and much less in real terms, is confirming what I said.

Indeed, the relevance of the fact that in the Twenties Federal Aid to Highways was roughly at today’s level as a share of GDP and much less than today’s level in real terms is also confirming what I said, that the US got really serious about Federal Highway funding in the 1930’s. After all, we are underspending on infrastructure today, and our road network is depreciating annually by an amount larger than total Federal Aid to Highways.

It was the NRA Title II and 1936 Aid to Highways that provided the precedent for the scale of Federal support that laid the foundation for the Interstate Highway System

If spending $16 billion on a bridge and $8 billion on an access tunnel to a train terminal is underspending, I want to know what you think overspending is.

I understand that the spending per project is a favored soapbox, and in its own terms its not a bad soapbox, but over and above that, since the mid-Seventies we have slashed the share of our GDP that we spend on infrastructure, and we have long since passed the point of unsustainably living off of depreciating our infrastructure.

…but we got all those lovely wars and nearly useless weapons systems instead!

Um, spending on the military as was twice the percentage of GDP it is today in that golden era of infrastructure.

And US spending on transportation isn’t really out of sync with the rest of the developed world. What’s out of sync is that the US spends more on roads and less on transit, and can build much less infrastructure per dollar it spends.

The number of nations that have reduced their investment in productive infrastructure in order to divert income flows into the cancerous growth of the FIRE sector of the economy over the past thirty years does nothing to establish that its an adequate level of investment in infrastructure for the United States in the face of the rapid obsolescence of our oil-dependent transport system.

BruceMcF wrote
“since the mid-Seventies we have slashed the share of our GDP that we spend on infrastructure, and we have long since passed the point of unsustainably living off of depreciating our infrastructure.”

That is the heart of the matter. America’s Presidents and Congress still value the military industrial complex more than sustaining our own nation. The Feds throw $710B/year (which excludes the portions we don’t know about) on Defense, but only about $70B/year on ALL transportation and roughly the same on education and energy is somewhere in that ballpark.

I talked with a man at Vdot and he told me that sections of the highways in Vrginia where built and paved in the 1910’s even.

Yes, but that was almost entirely with the funds of either local government or the Commonwealth of Virginia: AFAIR, the 1916 Aid to Highways Act had less than $8m in funding attached.

Precisely: $2.5b/year for “post roads”, as a share of national income, substantially less than that in real terms, clearly insufficient for the Pershing system, let alone the Interstate Highway System.


I disagree with your point that it would have been a mistake to announce an Interstate HSR Network Map by October 2010. Though Obama, Oberstar and the Demos should have channeled more than $13B to Amtrak/HSR projects, the map would have better set the stage for more aggressive investment to come.

I stated in an earlier forum, that Rep. Mica strikes me as a guy who wants a big legacy. At this point in time, no matter what he does for Highways or Aviation, it will not burnish his legacy. I’ve seen no indication that he cares much about Rapid Transit or Freight Rail. That leaves HSR as a legacy to share with President Obama.

In fact, Rep. Mica can one-up President Obama with a doctrine to only fund true HSR in states that are prepared for and want it. He can also work with another Republican (LaHood) to plan for true HSR in other states, without funding until those states are ready. So I’ve been noodling over a scenario were Mica can build HSR support among his colleagues:

* Taking advantage of tilt train advancements on passenger-only tracks, Mica and LaHood should co-establish the top speed minimum designation for HSR. Though the minimum upgrade in the legacy routes of France and Japan is 168 mph (270 kmph), technology advancements let them America for a world-class 185 mph minimum.

* The public is tired of funding Iraq and Afghan wars while there is high unemployment. By November 2012 election, House Repubs must show jobs building something under their watch, not just deficit reduction, tax cuts for the wealthy and obstructing President Obama on every point. A meager $7B/year of HSR investment coupled with the ongoing $40/year of Highway investment and $16B in Aviation investment in 2011 & 2012 will not balloon the deficit and gives Repubs a talking point with Indie voters that they worked with the President on a key piece of new infrastructure.

* Most new money can be channeled to Red States and Battleground States that want HSR, so Repubs can counterpoint their obstructionist image without further disgrace to the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio. More HSR planning studies in Missouri (St. Louis-KC), Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (DC-Richmond-Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta-Jacksonville-Orlando corridor) will complete in 2011 and be ready for funding. Since none of those Red States and Battleground States are Big Oil States, there would be less opposition. HSR from Boston to Miami

* Even though Georgia is home to Delta Airlines, Delta’s business model, like those of United and American, welcomes HSR covering sub-400 mile flights in routes that will become less profitable after jet fuel prices increase. Flights between Atlanta-DC are already more profitable than flights between Atlanta-Charlotte.

* As gasoline prices rise and more global warming evidence unfolds (glaciers breaking off) by October 2012, even Repubs will need to show progress on sustainable transportation. $7B/year is low cost/high profile PR for shovels turning in states and rural areas where trackage is laid. Such PR is a lot easier for Repubs to swallow than Rapid Transit jobs in urban areas.

Although its a dastardly way for Repubs to obstruct new urban-oriented Rapid Transit funding wanted primarily by Demos, that approach may have legs with Repubs.

Where I see that coming undone is here “and gives Repubs a talking point with Indie voters that they worked with the President on a key piece of new infrastructure” … that equally well gives Obama a talking point that he worked with House Republicans on a key piece of new infrastructure.

And just giving Obama that talking point is counter to the entire first two years of their four year campaign to take back the White House.

Prior to Repubs taking control of the House, “Stop Obama at Everything” was an understandable strategy by the Repub leadership. But they are now on the hook too. If unemployment does not reduce to 7-8% in their states by November 2012, many Repubs will be shown the door for job obstructionism, particularly in the battleground states of VA, NC, Florida and Missouri. Thus, Repub Reps and Senators have to find some common ground that brings home jobs to their states over the next 2 years.

If the Repubs think Machiavellian, at least Mica can be their point man to negotiate more bacon for Red & Battleground states that need and want HSR. More bacon for them is less for Demos, without appearing to be job obstructionists.

Political calculus for Presidential elections 2 years away is tricky at best. But President Obama has a big bat to swing now. He is bringing the Iraq War to a close and Afghan War drawdown begins in Summer 2011. Regardless of what North Korea does, Americans have no appetite for sending soldiers there. That and the bi-partisan commission report to improve fiscal responsibility gives Obama cover to propose lower Defense spending in 2011.

Most economists predict that the recent Tax Cut/Stimulus Bill will help job growth in 2011, though no one is saying how much. Politically, as long as jobs are added to the economy in 2011-12, thats a plus for Obama because its a ho button for Demos and Indies.

No one can predict how much deficit reduction Demos and Repubs will agree to or were it will come from, but arguably, they have to cut at least $150B in 2012 to make a difference that appeals to Indies. If you are Repub, do you oppose all Defense and Tax Deduction reduction and go after the 3rd rail of politics, Social Security, under a resurgent President? Going after Social Security cuts did not succeed under a Repub President and Congress. It stands a snowball’s chance in Hell of succeeding under President Obama, a Demo Senate and the Millionaire tax break extension.

Doing the calculus today, it adds to a 51+% chance that President Obama will be reelected, even if the Senate swings Repub. Vegas will take those odds 24/7.

And if you’re Mica, building a HSR Boston-Miami route is a good legacy to share with a possible 2-term President, even if you disagree with his other policies. Demos learned that lesson with President Eisenhower.

You may believe that, and it may be true. But at the moment, most Republicans would secretly smile at the prospect of the electorate in an angry mood for continued high unemployment in 2012, expecting that with the unprecedented flood of unregulated campaign advertising in 2012, they will be able to pin the blame on Obama.

Many of the same people saying that “Sabotage the administration and blame the Democrats for the results” was a strategy that would backfire on them were saying it would backfire on them in 2010. Yet in 2010 it brought them a control of the House. So I expect them to continue with it until and unless it does indeed backfire ~ I do not expect them to abandon it in fear of it backfiring in the future.

Also, passenger only track and substantial investment in curve easements and cutoffs reduces the track miles per dollar, reducing the number of states that can participate. Its a fine thing to raise a bogus talking point that 125mph corridors are not worth pursuing to pretend after the fact that that was the basis for not getting on board the President’s initiative … and with sufficient rewriting of history by their noise machine, they will easily have a large number of right wing activists re-remembering it that way …

… but it runs counter to the desire to bring home the bacon to the State in the Senate and the District in the House.

Although 125 mph routes have merit and would complete quicker than 185 mph routes, they don’t ring Mica’s bell, nor do they inspire America to do great things even among difficult times.

President Lincoln extended our national railroad system during the Civil War, making it our economic engine to the 20th century. We’ve had 125 mph trains back in the 1930s. So I refuse to believe that even Developing Nations see the greater benefits of an electric-powered, national network of 168-236 mph trains in the oil depleting 21st century, while America remains a thumb-sucking backwater.

I think you are in a false dichotomy in terms of long term economic development ~ a developing nation that pursued nothing but Express HSR rail corridors would be in a world of hurt in the coming decades.

As far as what floats Mica’s boat, that relates to short term political tactics as to how to get what is needed, it does not determine what is needed.


I think we can agree that excluding the NEC, California, Florida, most existing 60-79 mph intercity passenger rail corridors must be upgraded to 110 mph or electrified 125 mph in the 1st phase. I argue that sub-500 mile corridors connecting Top 40 Metro Areas should be upgraded to 185+ mph between 2020-30.

With the exception of Chicago-St. Louis corridor, the current crop of planned 110-125 mph upgrades between Top 40 Metro Areas are missing 2nd phase 185+ mph upgrade plans.

Maybe Amtrak, USDOT and state DOTs have realistic 2011-12 planning surprises coming for Phase 2 upgrade plans. But until then, I will draw attention to their dire absence and the absence of an 185-220 mph Interstate HSR Network Vision and Map.

I don’t want to see another unrealistic, gold-plated Amtrak NEC-like upgrade plan. Excluding the NEC, America ought to be able to 185+ mph upgrade 500 miles for $15-20B, depending on tunneling requirements.

What I would most want to see is a realistic national electric Rapid Freight Rail map from the Department of Defense.

Until the makings of a Rapid Passenger Rail system is in place, there is no useful purpose served by a national Express HSR system map: the freestanding Express HSR systems define themselves, and rewarding the states that have those natural corridors when they put together a reasonable system seems far more promising than top-down imposition of a system map. At this point, it would be seriously underinformed by experience and so over-informed by the inside the beltway version of theory, which is normally driven more by the tug of war between bureaucratic office politics and K-street interest group politics than by any planning logic.

The driving interest in electrification of freight rail is the national interest of an oil-addicted economy in the face of Peak Oil. We have only a limited number of policies that can cut our crude oil imports by 10% in the next decade, and ought to be pursuing each of them.

Setting up the system so that the freight railroads have an interest in making use of it is, of course, straightforward.

Total US freight rail oil consumption amounts to 2.5% that of passenger cars. Given the factor-of-10 difference in oil use between rail and trucking, the priority for freight transportation should be to move ton-miles away from roads. Reducing freight trains’ energy use is a low priority.

On top of this, since a large majority of US road oil use is for passenger transportation, the priority for energy independence spending should be reducing car use, not truck use.

As oil and fuel prices increase, the economic benefits of rail transportation will become greater, for both freight and passengers. At some point, electrification of freight railroads will make sense to the bottom line. It’s simply a matter of balancing operating costs against capital costs. The question is, what fuel price would induce the railroads to invest in the infrastructure?

Also, publicly supported electrification as on the Caltrain or Keystone corridors might encourage the freight railroads to expand the electric territories.

On some busy lines, it already is, in principle, beneficial to electrify – for example, the Southern Transcon. But railroads are loathe to electrify just part of their networks, because of compatibility issues.

Nationwide electrification would save about 3 cents in gas costs per year per dollar spent. If the cost savings of electric operation are high enough, then with reasonable increases in the price of oil it could beat the discount rate.

Alon, the *national* interest does not prioritize electrification of freight rail.

The interest of the *freight haulers*, however, does — if they can run trains more cheaply with electrification than without, it means profit.

This is traditionally prevented by *short-term thinking* due to the upfront cost involved in electrification.

BNSF, however, now has a long-term-thinking owner, and already did a major electrification study. They released the fact that it made no sense to do less than a near-total electrification, and they released the decision that electrification was not commercially beneficial “at current oil prices”.

Which implies that they now have a target oil price at which they will seek to electrify their network.

Great piece Yonah, your site is the first I look at daily. Just wanted to highlight this

Alon had previously explained to me his thoughts on why construction costs in the US are so high. Here we have the Yiwan Railway built mostly elevated and underground for $ 9 mil a mile (give or take). I would like to request from yourself and the guys in the know, a piece highlighting what elevates our costs in the US to the levels they are and possibly a few thoughts as to how these costs could be lowered.

Happy new year and keep up the good work!

To be honest, I’m not too fond of cost comparisons with China. China has much lower labor costs, especially in poorer regions like the Yiwan corridor; in middle-income areas such as most provinces the Jinghu PDL passes through, construction costs are in the same range as in the West.

The other reason is that English-language information about Chinese practices is scarcer than information about French or Spanish practices, which means it’s harder for a non-Chinese speaker to form an informed opinion.

I’m less concerned with the cost comparison than I am the inability of the US to match China, Korea or Spain in infrastructure investment. It’s not just HSR; it’s our failure to address the weaknesses in the electrical grid, our refusal to demonstrate self-control in land use, our willingness to cannibalize our country’s ability to generate wealth in favor of “cheap” gasoline and trade imbalances which hit $500 billion in a “good” year. It doesn’t matter that China doesn’t play by the same rules, it matters that China finds ways to move ahead where the US sinks into a self-indulgent funk of denial.

But the reason that the US doesn’t match those other countries is precisely the outsized construction costs. American cities aren’t spending less on infrastructure than European and Asian cities – they’re just getting much less. All over the country, even in LA, ballot measures to increase taxes to pay for transit expansions win by large majorities. The political will is there, but most of this spending is wasted on light rail lines that cost as much as a subway.

Even politically motivated cancellations, e.g. of ARC, come from excessive costs and nothing else. If Jersey had leveraged the same $8 billion more wisely, it could have gotten so much extra infrastructure that Christie wouldn’t have dared cancel it. A cancellation, which is currently polling about even in the state, would have instead resulted in massive backlash.

I believe you are technically wrong about this. American cities *are* spending less on infrastructure than European, and some Asian, cities. The key difference appears to be much larger levels of national funding for infrastructure in those countries.

More importantly, how much are we spending on the *right* infrastructure? Massachusetts sure spent a lot on the Big Dig, but the entire project was an obvious mistake from day one…. there’s Chicago’s poorly-thought-out Deep Sewage Tunnel, versus the swampland restorations and reductions of impenetrable surface done by some other cities…. etc.

Give me some credit, Nathanael – I’ve already taken national spending into account. In fact the comparisons I’m implicitly referring to are often of urban to national spending – e.g. LA Measure R versus total Swiss funding to rail expansion.

But yeah, the main problem is not total spending, but spending priorities and cost-effectiveness.

US to China rail costs are apples to oranges comparisons. If the US had a non-democratic government, low labor costs and pared-back environmental protections, US rail costs would be a lot lower. I am not willing to have those things even if it resulted in more rail development in the US.

I was fascinated by the other reports (in the post about UK HSR) that passenger rail development is much cheaper in Europe than in the US. One of the reasons seems to be the FRA’s onerous standards (for total separation of each type of passenger rail from all other rail traffic).

I’d be very interested to learn more about why rail construction costs are cheaper in Western Europe–and I understand that they are–since any lessons learned could hopefully be applied in the US.

For all of the Republican-bashing I see in comments in general, if transit advocates found ways to propose reductions of excessive government regulations and government-imposed expenses for rail construction, thus freeing up scarce dollars for more effective rail uses, the GOP would jump to support such proposals.

A lot has to do with two major constituencies of both parties. The GOP remains beholden to Big Oil and to the very wealthy, which oppose mass transit for obvious reasons. The Democrats in many places remain beholden to labor unions, to the point that in some cities it seems that the main purpose of transit is to provide high-paying jobs to bus drivers and construction workers, with mobility being a secondary priority.

One good thing about Obama is that he seems interested in genuine reform in many areas, rather than in simply bringing home bacon for organized labor. This approach may be bad politics in many cases–it enrages many liberals, without winning him credit from conservatives (who have their own beefs with the President); but it may well in fact be wise policy.

Far too many politicians, unfortunately, excel at bringing us the reverse (bad policy which is politically sound).

Given a sound financing basis for operating budgets, cheaper construction costs for dedicated transport corridors would be of substantial service in terms of generating middle class income jobs. So it would seem that the ability to finance operating budgets for dedicated transport is the missing link on that side.

As it is, more efficient construction would just mean an ability to build more routes to provide services that we cannot afford to operate, under the current rules of the game.

As it is, the farebox operating ratios at the biggest American transit agencies are not terrible, and many of the lines whose future is in doubt potentially have very good performance. Second Avenue Subway’s ridership projections per route-km are a little higher than the ridership per route-km of Tokyo Metro. But there’s little chance more than a quarter of the line will be built, because of the highest-in-the-world construction costs.

Alon, that’s a New York State problem, not a US problem. And yes, we need to reform NY’s public contracting laws, apparently *everyone* who’s involved in the field agrees.

It’s both. The costs of BART to San Jose, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, etc. are all several times as high as you’d expect for equivalent lines abroad. Neither Jersey City nor San Jose is New York, but you’ll never confuse either with Madrid, either.

I had a six-paragraph political explanation, but the short of it is that nobody has both the interest and the knowledge to implement reforms correctly. An increase in efficiency is really economic growth, and the US is just inefficient, like a poor country. We could try to explain why the US got this way, just as we could explain why some country stagnated, and we could try to offer solutions, just like we could try to find reforms that would help a poor country grow, but it’s not in itself easy.

Many increases in efficiency, however, are only static economic growth ~ one-off jumps to a new level. The prizes are the ones that accelerate or open up dynamic economic growth.

And, indeed, when there is a conflict between static and dynamic efficiency, a static inefficiency that enables dynamic economic growth, suboptimization for a particular static efficiency can end up reducing economic growth, as we saw in 2008 with the elimination of prudential reserves and regulation which was efficient from the perspective of quarterly results of the finance sector but in the end all the narrowly defined static efficiency gains resulted in an unsustainable growth regime, which of course crashed.

Sustainable growth regimes are very sparse in the space of all possible institutional systems.

All increases in efficiency are one-off jumps. You can’t invent the steam engine or institute universal literacy more than once. Best you can do is keep improving earlier inventions or policies, and come up with new ideas. So far it’s been happening about as well as you’d expect, in the sense that real economic growth in the richest countries has followed the same trend since the 1870s.

Sustainable growth has nothing to do with it. The reason markets crashed in 2008 was that there was a huge bubble. You can try to explain it in terms of creative finance and its lack of real efficiency gains, but that can’t be the whole story, because you’ll miss the Eastern European crash or for that matter the last few bubbles.

Sustainable growth has nothing to do with it. The reason markets crashed in 2008 was that there was a huge bubble.

A bubble is long term unsustainable growth of asset prices ~ so you contradict the first sentence above as soon as you say the markets crashed because there was a huge bubble. Repeating what I said in different terms does not count as contradicting what I said.

What may be an increase in efficiency one year may be a decrease in efficiency later. One problem the US has, compared to other countries, is a higher exposure to petroleum prices. What is alleged to be an efficiency today–our extensive road network–will be an inefficiency tomorrow.

“if transit advocates found ways to propose reductions of excessive government regulations and government-imposed expenses for rail construction, thus freeing up scarce dollars for more effective rail uses, the GOP would jump to support such proposals.”

No, it wouldn’t. I mean, you would and some local and state GOP politicians would, but the national leadership wouldn’t. You are sadly misguided about the GOP in this regard.

Example 1: the Bush administration actually attempted to make the FRA restrictions on rail MORE onerous. Apparently for the purpose of discouraging passenger rail… It also imposed extra hoops on all mass transit project applications, costing and wasting money….

The Bush administration also actively encouraged local governments and Amtrak to get involved in exotic financing deals with banks to, well, I guess give money to the banks. (Those blew up.) They demanded unnecessary and expensive “private participation” in the form of “public private partnerships” as the condition for various funding as well, presumably for the purpose of allowing private entities to rake money off. Now, I’ll be fair, there were Democrats who encouraged this sort of nonsense too.

I’m glad to see China has the can do spirt of building a complex railroad like that in less then five years though 10,000 foot mountains which are basicly the foot the Hmylan Mountains and it dosen’t get more mountainous then that in the world. While the Calirfoinia project is going to cost five times that much and take 10 years if we are lucky they break ground on a 60 mile flat section with noting but flat land on all sides of it for a 100 miles and hardly any people.

A couple of thoughts.

First, in reference to Mary Peters’ preference for BRT over streetcar and light rail, I know one example very well. Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor has been discussed since maybe the 1920’s. Serious discussion began again after 1990, with subway downtown and surface light rail beyond. Also, the project design specifically allowed for connection with the existing Shaker lines. Cleveland’s mayor at the time shot down the project. A few years later, it was resurrected, but as a busway. Originally it was to be an electric trolleybus, but the FTA insisted on so many cuts that the trolleybus option was shot down. Ultimately, the Feds paid the majority of the costs for a $250-milllionish busway. Remember, this is Cleveland, where we have vast amounts of abandoned land. There was and is a lingering disgust at the project, with many people asking why RTA (transit authority) screwed up so badly, “screwing up” repeatedly quantified as not building rail. But RTA couldn’t build light rail, or a streetcar, because the FTA consistently rated the project so poorly. This might seem prudent if there were no right-of-way infrastructure, but Cleveland already had one heavy rail and two light rail lines, and LRT or streetcar would allow connection with and enhancement of the existing network. Nope. Nearly three years of disrupted traffic, and just under 5 miles of rebuilt roadway at $50 mill/mile–and we get low-floor articulateds. People for and against transit both commented that we could’ve had transit lanes with a road-striping crew. The FTA under Mary Peters left Cleveland with a transit project that is widely viewed as a waste of money, one which would’ve been no more expensive as a streetcar line. Worse, we’re stuck with a project where labor efficiencies came largely from switching from standard to articulated buses, and I have yet to see any city in North America using the double-articuated buses seen in Hamburg.

As for the ARC project in New Jersey…it was grossly flawed, and it was being built in a context of surreal incompetence. As mentioned on “60 Minutes” two weeks ago, New Jersey failed to make appropriate contributions to state pension funds for 14 of the last 17 years. The total cost of the shortfall (pension and retiree healthcare obligations) is something on the order of $106 billion, or at least four years of the ENTIRE state budget. In any long-term measure, New Jersey has immense debt, and it’s also in the context of bloated local government. Jersey already has high taxes–but you won’t hear any Republicans admitting that Jersey pays DC significantly more than it gets back, so New Jersey’s structural problems are really tied to the refusal of states like Arkansas or Mississippi to tax themselves for the services they get.

We’re faced with a need to invest trillions of dollars in infrastructure at exactly the time we don’t have it, and we don’t have it because our national policies place a higher priority on cheap consumer imports and oil-related military activity. Ironically, our most fatal mistake is that we refuse to acknowledge that China’s surging importance comes precisely because of state intervention. China isn’t Communist, it’s a mercantile state. So are Korea and Japan. We can’t compete against mercantile states unless we marshal our resources on a comparable scale, and that means we have to have more government involvement. We saw some movement in that direction in 2009 and 2010, but we aren’t likely to see any more for the next two years.

China is opening new rail lines. They’re the equivalent of pushing 150-175 mph rail through the most rugged parts of Pennsylvania or West Virginia, and these are lines built from scratch. We need those lines, but we don’t have a commitment to them. Problem is, we also aren’t maintaining our existing roads. We’re sliding backwards. Chris Christie is the poster child for this; he cancelled outright a project which could’ve been reconfigured, which likely would’ve caused some delays, but his refusal to re-evaluate and reconfigure will screw New Jersey for at least the next ten years. For the next two years at least, that’s likely how we’re gonna operate at the national level, which means we’re sacrificing the ability to move ourselves and our goods with the greatest speed and efficiency, so that we can all but eliminate taxes for the super-rich. The Chinese would never be this irresponsible.

For a sovereign currency nation with debt denominated in its own sovereign currency, “money” is never a fundamental constraint if resources exist to pursue a task. And the resources exist to pursue the task of building, eg, $60b of transcontinental electric Rapid Freight Rail corridors, $30b worth of dedicated electric local transit corridors, and $10b worth of of electric intercity passenger transport corridors per year over a decade.

“There is no money” in the face of existing resources is code for “there is no political coalition with the leverage and the interest in it to make it happen”. We seem to be near to the level of the American Association of State Highway Officials and its Progressive allies of the 1910’s, when they were able to get the equivalent of $2.5b/yr in terms of GDP share (much less, of course, in real terms) in the 1916 Federal Aid Highways Act, since we were able to get that amount exactly in one budget appropriation, and have since fallen back down to $1b/yr.

“China isn’t Communist, it’s a mercantile state. So are (South) Korea and Japan. We can’t compete against mercantile states unless we marshal our resources on a comparable scale, and that means we have to have more government involvement.”

Drewski, you hit the nail on the head.

I doubt my conservative friends and I will see eye-to-eye on Global Warming for many years, but if they can muster the wisdom to look beyond domestic political dogma, they will understand that America’s primary competition is mercantile not military. Sustainable energy, transportation, better education, slanted trade deals and insourcing are the weapons of choice, not bombs, battleships and millionaire tax breaks.

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