California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail

A Different Future with California High-Speed Rail

» California’s Senate takes a courageous step in supporting the first construction stage of the state’s high-speed rail project. There is much more work to be done.

Last week, America’s future in high-speed rail took a modest step forward. On Thursday, California’s State Assembly approved by a 51 to 27 margin the release of $2.5 billion in state bonds for the construction of a 130-mile segment of 220-mph tracks through the Central Valley and the implementation of $2 billion in commuter rail improvements in the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions. On Friday, by a vote of 21 to 16, the State Senate expressed its agreement.* If all goes as planned, the project could be under construction by the beginning of next year. Tracks between Madera and Bakersfield could be ready for use by 2017, the first step towards what could be an eventual 2h40 journey time for trains traveling from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The passage of the bill, which also frees up $3.2 billion in federal funds allocated for the project, is a major success not only for Governor Jerry Brown and California’s Democratic Party (no Republicans in either chamber voted in favor of the program), but also for President Obama and his Department of Transportation, which have championed high-speed rail as an essential element of America’s future transportation system. Moreover, it is a victory for those who argue that, despite the challenges and the compromises, in order to advance societal change on a grand scale, major investments in projects such as this are necessary.

The line section that will be built first has not been without controversy. Choosing to begin construction in the Central Valley, away from the population centers of the Bay Area and L.A. Basin, has induced the expected calls of a “railway to nowhere.” Yet the route selected in fact serves an area with a population of 3 million people and offers the crucial link between the two large metropolitan areas to the north and south. It is the only section of the system where sustained speeds of 220 mph can be offered by trains cruising down the straight-aways through farmlands. And it can be done at the moderate cost of about $44 million per mile, in a similar range as projects such as France’s LGV Sud-Europe Atlantique, now under construction (211 miles at a cost of €6.2 billion, or $7.6 billion, so about $36 million per mile).

If the only goal of the project were to connect L.A. and San Francisco as quickly as possible, the project could have been built to run around I-5, which charts a slightly straighter route through the Central Valley — not doing so, the L.A. Times told us today, could be a major flaw in the project.** But that alignment would skip over the Central Valley’s cities, depriving them of the direct access to California’s biggest regions. Because they currently do not have good airline service, they stand to be some of the places that benefit most from the project.

More importantly, though, California’s rail project is a statewide program about more than people from the coast. Without support from some residents and politicians in the Central Valley, the program could not have been passed either in 2008 or last week. Avoiding Fresno may have made building any high-speed rail impossible.

This raises a larger question. The high-speed rail project is quite expensive and it is not perfect. Its creation and development have been the result of compromise and negotiation between political leaders whose interests do not necessarily coincide with the ideal investment. But we live in a democracy where our elected officials, not engineers, make final decisions about projects such as this. Does an imperfect project deserve to be abandoned? I think not. It should be criticized and improved, but its weak points should not be achilles heels.

Map of the initial plans for service along the California High-Speed Rail route, showing the Madera-Bakersfield segment now approved for construction. Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority

What is so exciting about California’s project is the initiative the state and its municipalities have taken in the advancement of a program that could — if the public so desires — alter permanently the geography of America’s most populous state. By passing the $9.5 billion referendum in 2008, state voters indicated that they were willing to put a very substantial chunk of their own money, not just federal funds, on the line for an investment that will truly offer an alternative to automobile and aviation travel in this state. San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego are each in the process of significantly expanding their local rapid transit systems in a manner that will make them compatible with local high-speed rail stations. And the state has made a priority the development of a land use strategy that encourages denser construction around stops.

In other words, despite years of opposition from conservative groups concerned about spending of California’s “readiness” for high-speed rail, the state has advanced with an entrepreneurial spirit the project and accompanying changes. No other state has made nearly as serious an effort to consider its future infrastructure needs and integrate them into a unified planning policy.

Even if the initial construction segment is put under construction as planned — that may be difficult considering the regulatory approvals and barrage of lawsuits standing in its way — there are enormous obstacles to actually implementing the planned connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the most significant example of which is the lack of adequate fiscal resources. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2012 business plan expects that it will cost $31 billion to connect Bakersfield to the San Fernando Valley, meaning that about $18 billion in funding is still necessary even for this first step, taking into account the roughly $8 billion released last week and the additional $5 billion for fast trains included in the 2008 referendum. For a one-seat ride between San Francisco and L.A., $51 billion will be necessary; for 2h40 service between the cities, $68 billion is required (this is in year-of-expenditure dollars; this is equivalent to $53 billion in today’s money).

While that figure might be acceptable from the perspective of overall public investment in infrastructure, where will that money be found? The U.S. transportation reauthorization bill passed last week provides no additional funding for high-speed rail. Republicans have demonstrated against intercity rail and rejected several projects despite federal support. In his campaign platform, Mitt Romney cites “privatizing Amtrak” as a top way to save the government money. The outcome of the 2012 elections will determine whether California will be able to move ahead as expected, or whether it will have to put off plans by two years or more.

The reality is that the prospects for the project’s completion in the next decade and a half, as currently planned, are limited. There is simply inadequate determination in the U.S. political sphere to make a project of this magnitude anywhere close to easy to execute. That does not mean that the project will not be built, but that making it happen will require years of negotiations, compromise, and expansion of popular support. We could be at the start of something very exciting, but there is a lot of work still left to be done.

A final note: To those who would suggest that the funds would be better used in the Northeast Corridor (an often-cited example of a “more reasonable” place for high-speed rail), there are two limitations that make such a project less than ideal. For one, the Northeast Corridor runs through eight states and the District of Columbia, leading to conflicting priorities and differences in opinion about the right investments to make. While Connecticut might want to spend its share of funding on improving train travel between New Haven and Hartford, Massachusetts might be interested in improving the main line along Connecticut’s shore to allow fast trains between New York and Boston. How can those problems be resolved with so many conflicting claims to power?

Moreover, whereas California’s citizenry has voted in favor of spending $10 billion of the state’s money on the high-speed rail projects, Northeast Corridor states have proposed nothing of the sort, and their residents have not had the chance to endorse anything similar. It would be unjust for the federal government to orient funding towards a section of the country with so little local commitment to a project, whatever the need.

Two, the high cost of California’s high-speed project has of course caused significant controversy, but the financial requirements of a true high-speed line for the Northeast would be far higher. The Boston-Washington corridor is simply much more developed than California’s Central Valley and thus there is less space to install track capable of 220 mph; the only way to do so is to invest in very expensive tunnels or land takings. Thus it is no surprise that Amtrak’s latest vision for high-speed rail service in the Northeast, released on Monday, would cost $151 billion to construct by 2040. If the West Coast project seems expensive, Amtrak’s seems extravagant.

* By a close, one-vote margin. The measure required a two-thirds majority to be approved.

** The article claims that French rail company SNCF recommended a route along I-5. Yet SNCF’s 2009 proposals for U.S. high-speed rail, which I broke, say “SNCF endorses the alignment proposed by the CHSRA project linking San Francisco Transbay Terminal to downtown Anaheim, passing through Los Angeles Union Station, Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Gilroy, and San Jose Diridon.” In other words, the company explicitly endorsed the alignment through the Central Valley cities, not along I-5.

High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail London United Kingdom

Defying Criticism, Government Finalizes Plans for U.K. High-Speed Rail

» A new route from London to Birmingham to be opened by 2026, with further extensions planned into 2030s. Project continues to face healthy skepticism.

Whatever the recession’s effects on government budgets, infrastructure development in Europe continues to advance at a steady pace. The United Kingdom government affirmed last week that it would move forward with the construction of a £18.8 billion ($29 billion) high-speed link between London and Birmingham, due for opening in 2026. This in spite of draconian cuts across all sorts of public services, both in Britain and across the continent.

The U.K.’s high-speed effort — it will effectively produce the nation’s first domestic truly high-speed line — follows almost two decades of travel to and from Paris and Brussels via Eurostar trains that operate under the English Chanel. Though those services have only recently met opening-year ridership expectations, Eurostar holds the large majority of the air-rail market share to these continental capitals, especially since following improvements completed in 2007 London finds itself within about two hours of its mainland peers. The popularity of that service surely had something to do with the government’s decision to move forward on a second line.

HS2 will bring measurable benefits: London to Birmingham in just 45 minutes, compared to 1h20 today, and eventually an hour off of trips to Manchester or Leeds, once extensions north to those cities are opened in 2032 at a cumulative cost of £36 billion. Direct trips between northern cities and Heathrow Airport and even the continent via the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will be put into place. London’s aging Euston terminal will be significantly spruced up. The biggest improvement, perhaps, will be the practical doubling of capacity between the capital and the Midlands by providing a release valve for the West Coast Main Line, which recently went through its own upgrading project but which is predicted to reach capacity with a dozen years. (It already handles more than 40% of the country’s freight and 75 million annual passenger journeys.)

Yet the enormous cost of the link up to Birmingham has been put in question repeatedly not only by those who worry about increasing public debt but also those who question the need for the new rail link — especially along the chosen alignment.

The questions vary, depending on the critique: Is it worth spending this much money, primarily to reduce travel times by half an hour on trips between London and northern cities? Is the West Coast Main Line actually at capacity, or can it easily be expanded? Will UK travel patterns change to a significant enough extent to justify more transportation connections?

Much of the criticism of the project has focused on the line’s segment through the Cotswolds northwest of London, a pristine section of Britain that also happens to hold the residences of some of the nation’s most wealthy. But project planners seem to be unable to find an alternative to that alignment; it has remained the same even after the political transition between Labour and the Conservatives after the 2010 elections. That opposition, however, comes across as nimbyism, especially since its prime backers call from the affected area.

But the complaint that there is not enough of an economic rationale for the project is more compelling. The government’s own study of the project suggests that the first section would have a shaky benefits-cost ratio of just 1.6. This means that each pound of investment in the project would lead to £1.6 in economic benefits (in today’s discounted currency). Public works projects should be considered in comparison with one another to prioritize investments, and this rating is low.* The government’s own study of the 51M alternative, produced by project opponents as a suggestion to expand capacity on the West Coast Main Line, suggested a benefits-cost ratio of five or six for that less costly scheme.

Up in the air is the issue of whether the system will ever be extended north of Birmingham, to Manchester and Leeds as suggested by current planning, and then further north to Scotland. Of course, the financing to make those expansions possible is lacking, despite the fact that they would improve the benefits-cost ratio of the program to between 1.8 and 2.5, a far better result.

Meanwhile, the delayed completion of the line (it will not enter the construction stage until 2018) forces us to ask whether governmental action today is “final.” The justification of the wait has been that the government wants to first complete the equally huge Crossrail urban rail project for London. But who knows what priorities the government of 2018 will have. Will the high-speed rail project by then have lost political support?

A low cost-benefit ratio, however, does not necessarily mean the project shouldn’t be built.** The 51M scheme would be fine, but according to the government, it would fail to provide the capacity expansions to the rail network the country necessitates. It would force increasing freight shipments onto congested roadways. As the U.K. plans for its future, it has a choice: Allow its existing infrastructure to become paralyzed by disinvestment and a lack of capacity, or invest to expand it. The latter choice will allow for expanded travel and trade, the former will not.

These issues plague the development of many similar infrastructure investment projects. The California High-Speed Rail project, which continues to attract significant criticism from across the country and which lacks the national commitment devoted to Britain’s program, nonetheless represents a fundamental choice about the future of that state. Will it invest in its mobility systems to guarantee that its future inhabitants have access to travel options? Or will it overwhelm its existing infrastructure with the pains of growth? It’s an expensive choice.

* The government’s insistence that the project will create a large number of jobs (and therefore that it is good) improves the benefits-cost ratio only to the extent that external (non-construction) employment growth occurs because of the rail project and wouldn’t otherwise. After all, construction jobs, if that were the priority, could come cheaper: We could pay people to dig holes.

** As long as the ratio is over 1. Otherwise, the project would then produce more costs than benefits…

Image above: Rendering of British High-Speed Rail, from HS2

California High-Speed Rail Finance High-Speed Rail

High Costs Threaten California’s High-Speed Rail Project, But the Wider Context Must be Understood

» Over the long run, California’s fast train project remains within an acceptable range of costs, despite recent increases.

The release of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s revised business plan on Tuesday underlined concerns about the future viability of the nation’s biggest proposed transportation project: Not only would its completion have to be delayed significantly — to 2033 or later — but projected costs have risen dramatically, to $98 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars. In a political environment where making a large long-term commitment to anything other than the military is almost impossible, the increasing costs required to pay for the program put in doubt its future. This fast train project designed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2h40 is not dead, but its completion is less likely now than it was last week.

The steadily rising nature of the public expenditures that would be required to build the project as now designed have been roundly criticized in some quarters, and it is true that the project’s increasing reliance on very heavy and expensive infrastructures like viaducts and tunnels may be unnecessary by international standards. But the project’s per-mile costs — even with the cost increase — are not hugely different from those in other developed countries for rail systems offering speeds of up to 220 mph.

Yet the broader issue is how the project’s price compares to that of existing public sector transportation investments and the economy as a whole, and as the chart above demonstrates, its ostensibly enormous price is, well, relatively small.

Between now and 2033, the rail project would cost between $65 and $75 billion (in 2010 dollars). Over the same period, Caltrans, California’s Department of Transportation, can be expected to spend at least $286 billion (also in 2010 dollars), mostly on roads projects, assuming that its current annual budget of about $13 billion (including federal and state outlays) stays intact. In truth, considering that there is considerable support for increasing infrastructure spending in general, that figure is likely to go up considerably.

Compare those figures to the state’s GDP, which is estimated at about $1.9 trillion a year. Over the course of twenty-two years, the state will produce $42 trillion in output (again, in 2010 dollars) — assuming no growth in the economy, despite the fact that California’s population is expected to grow by seven to seventeen million people by 2040.

This very conservative* estimate, then, suggests that a high-cost rail project would not only represent only 0.18% of a heavily depressed state economy over 22 years, but also that it would only account for 21% of the broader state transportation budget, which would remain mostly focused on highway construction and maintenance, as in the status quo. On average, the U.S. invested between 2.5 and 3% of its GDP on publicly sponsored infrastructure between the 1950s and 1990s. The full cost of the California project thus comes to appear far less dramatic.

The project becomes even less problematic considering it is, like almost every high-speed rail project, expected to be operationally profitable, and that its benefits to the society will be larger than its costs. The analysis done by the authority, based on decreased travel times, lower use of fuel, reduction in pollution, increases in productivity and reliability, and a decline in traffic accidents, suggests a decent benefits-cost ratio of 1.5 to 1.8. This does not include other benefits, such as the ability to avoid building hundreds of lane-miles of new highways and expanded airports to accommodate the mobility needs of millions of new California residents.

Nor is such a significant investment in one project out of the international norm. The Grand Paris Express, designed to connect the suburbs of the French capital with a circumferential rail network, will cost about $40 billion to build (including ancillary improvements in the existing system). This alone will represent about 0.4% of the Paris region’s GDP between now and 2025. Both the Paris and California projects will contribute massively to the economic growth of the regions in which they are being built.

The question, then, is two-fold: First, what level of investment should the country make in its transportation system? Second, are other transportation projects more valuable than the California rail project?

The first issue is political: Is there sufficient support among electoral constituencies in California to allow for the continued sponsorship of what will be a drawn-out process with plenty of controversy? California Governor Jerry Brown appears to remain on board, as does, surprisingly, at least one member of the state GOP delegation. The rail authority’s attempt to stage the project — beginning with a segment between the Central Valley and either the Los Angeles Basin or Bay Area, and then moving for a full-length line — is one way to make the project more palatable in the short term.

More broadly, the state must make a decision about how it wants to invest in its transportation future. As already noted, the state department of transportation is likely to invest about $300 billion in mostly highway infrastructure over the next two decades. With so much spending directed towards the roads network, it cannot be easy to dismiss a large spending commitment to rail. But the difference between the two is obvious: Because the rail line is a single project (despite its statewide implications), it is viewed in terms of its huge costs and long-term lifecycle; the roads improvements likely to occur during the same period are four times as expensive — but broken into much smaller, shorter-term projects, so they are far less politically vulnerable.

And the system will surely need further support from the federal government, which the authority hopes to convince (over the next few decades) to chip in $20 billion or more in grants. Because of the insecure fiscal situation, private funding for the project will have to wait. Nevertheless, a future Congress that considers high-speed rail an acceptable mode of transport will likely fund projects nationwide; remember that earlier in 2011, President Obama proposed entirely seriously investing $53 billion in fast trains. Though that effort was not successful, the idea is clearly on the minds of policymakers.

None of this suggests that it would be a bad idea to reduce the costs of the project. The cost of the line cannot continue to increase infinitely (though the authority’s math in this business plan is based on the considerable preliminary engineering completed since the last plan in 2009, so that doesn’t seem likely). The whole line cannot be put into tunnels or onto viaducts in order to avoid community opposition, or it will become impossible to fund.

At a certain point, the question is therefore whether there are other programs that would provide better societal benefit than the high-speed rail system, and this is a valid conversation worth exploring. From my perspective, moving the money into roads infrastructure would be simpleminded considering the need to expand mobility options and decrease levels of pollution. It could also be possible to use the funds for local transit expansion, which has plenty of unmet capital needs, especially in California’s largest cities. But who in the state is proposing a comprehensive effort to upgrade rail and bus networks? And how would that spending address the needs of intercity travel?

* And admittedly back-of-the-envelope, but the point is to highlight proportions here, not specific values.

California High-Speed Rail Finance High-Speed Rail

With Little Hope for Near-Term Federal Support, California High-Speed Rail Struggles

» Despite an excellent proposal and significant state support, the project cannot hope to attract private investors without a larger commitment of aid from Washington. Meanwhile, Europe continues to invest.

The long hoped-for private financing necessary to construct the California High-Speed Rail project will not come as easily as originally planned.

That, at least, is the conclusion of the authority empowered to build the project, the nation’s single-largest infrastructure program. According to the Los Angeles Times, in a letter to legislators this week the agency warned that the private money that it had counted on to cover a third of the project’s more than $45 billion costs would likely not be available until after parts of the line were up and running. The problem is that investors are concerned about the fact that of the expected major contribution from the federal government, only $3 billion has been authorized so far — and opposition in Congress to President Obama’s high-speed rail program means more money will be difficult to get, at least until after the 2012 elections.

The letter was essentially a preview of the authority’s new business plan, which is due to be submitted November 1. The plan must be approved by the state legislators in order for state funding to be spent on the 220 mph line, which is designed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with future links to San Diego and Sacramento.

The news is embarrassing for the authority, which has been arguing for years that it could attract billions in private funds before the project was ready to be built, but it is not altogether surprising given the situation in which it has been placed. As I argued in mid-2009, California may well “never receive a guarantee that the feds will fully fund their prescribed share of the entire corridor’s construction costs. This is a huge problem, because a public agency shouldn’t be expending massive amounts of money on sections of a train system it doesn’t know it can finish completely. The private partners California hopes to interest in its program will not be excited about helping out on a train line they aren’t sure will ever open.

And indeed, this has been a legitimate concern about the Obama Administration’s high-speed rail program since it was first formulated. Though it is designed to sponsor major projects like California’s, its small appropriation ability means that the commitments it should be making — California wanted upwards of $10 billion from Washington, equal to the full amount thus far appropriated by Congress to the national program — cannot be distributed. The fact that the House and Senate have yet to agree on a long-term transportation bill, and the fact that Republicans have shown no interest so far in funding more intercity rail programs using the public purse, suggests that the situation is unlikely to get better for now.

This is likely to put a dent in plans to open the new rail line by 2020.

The California authority has developed a series of potential solutions to the problem, which must be solved if the agency wants to use the federal grants it has received thus far, since they must be spent by 2017. One option is to use federal loan guarantees and tax credits to provide an incentive for private investors to put their funds into the project or to leverage the $9 billion in state funds (authorized by the public in a 2008 vote) through the bond market, which could allow a tripling of available money. This would all have to be paid off eventually through public sector tax funds or user fees. While the California network is to be operationally profitable like virtually every high-speed rail system, it is unclear whether receipts will be large enough to cover capital costs.

The other possibility is to shorten the planned route, replacing what was originally supposed to be a full new line from San Francisco to Los Angeles with a feeder line that would speed up existing Amtrak trains. Because the federal government has committed to a Central Valley segment between Merced and Bakersfield as the first section fo the route to be constructed, it seems likely that the authority would have to concentrate its resources on this project.

In some ways, this could be a reasonable approach. Trains between Oakland and Bakersfield currently take six hours to complete their journey, but the high-speed line would allow 52-minute trips between Merced and Bakersfield, compared to three hours today. Thus constructing just this segment would reduce Oakland-Bakersfield trips to less than four hours — a massive reduction in journey times — if the appropriate rolling stock were available.

Of course, this would do little to address the greater concern, which was supposed to be linking San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2h40. Currently, there are no direct trains into San Francisco, and the coastal route along which Amtrak trains run from Oakland to L.A. requires 11 to 12 hours of journey times. There is no train link between L.A. and Bakersfield. Because of the federal government’s previous decision to concentrate its resources in the Central Valley, resolving this issue will have to wait for another time if more funding is not found in the short term. But one wonders whether a link between Oakland and Bakersfield will be enough in itself to generate profitable ridership that convinces private investors to commit to the project, as the authority seems to be implying.

This news comes just as the European Union announced its most recent Ten-T program, which is investing €31.7 billion in ten E.U.-scale corridors, most of which are designated for high-speed rail. Member countries have committed to hundreds of billions of euros more to build the projects, and indeed, there are active plans for new lines in most European countries. This is a prime example of governments thinking seriously about how to invest their limited resources in transportation projects that will pay off in the long-term.

Some might argue that the United States and Europe are simply different, that private investors here recognize that Americans will not ride trains and thus will not commit to funding irrational projects. But the ability of European countries to attract private partners to cover up to half of the costs of their new rail lines has a lot more to do with the fact that there has been a solid commitment from governments there to invest in those programs, whereas American policy on the issue has been erratic at best.

The problem is that California has been shunted into an impossible position: forced to make due with very limited federal funds despite a large commitment from state voters, the authority cannot attract private dollars. This is not, I would argue strongly, the fault of the authority or the Department of Transportation, which has funded it so far; blame rests entirely on a Congress that has been incapable of having a serious discussion (and making a final decision) about the merits of major investments in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Instead, it continues to hand out small amounts, enough to keep projects like California’s alive but not enough to actually implement them.

But California is still in a bind. It must either must cancel work — a dead-end proposition that will inevitably require unearthing the proposal in a decade — or build a much-shortened segment with far fewer benefits to the state. While it would be nice to get from Oakland to Bakersfield more quickly, the advantages of such a project pale in comparison to those of a full San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.

None of this news should be cause for celebration for opponents of spending on government infrastructure. The millions of people who are expected to ride the high-speed rail system every year will have to get between their destinations by some mode, and California’s air and roads infrastructure is at capacity. No high-speed system means spending just as much — or more — public dollars on upgrades to the existing system. Meanwhile, even if the financial costs of upgrades to highways and airports were similar to those of building the new rail network, the society’s economic costs of doing so are completely different: The high-speed rail system would offer an ecologically friendly alternative that reinforces the city centers of the state instead of furthering sprawl.

Without a real sign of commitment from the federal government, however, projects like California’s simply will not be able to be constructed in the United States. This speaks volumes of the ability of the American public sector to invest in projects that are beneficial to the society as a whole from a long-term perspective.

Image above: California High-Speed Rail, from California High-Speed Rail Authority

Congress Finance High-Speed Rail Infrastructure

Ignoring Inaction in Congress, DOT Pushes Through Grants for Intercity Rail

» Congress isn’t able to do much in terms of passing new legislation — but the Department of Transportation hasn’t hesitated to move forward to fund intercity rail projects.

Americans are frustrated with the Congress: Over 80% of the population disapproves of the job the national legislature is doing. And no wonder. With the unemployment situation out of control and the economy still on the skids, this is the time for government action.

All we seem to be getting, however, are repeated demands from Republicans to reduce spending drastically — and meek replies from Democrats worried about upsetting the electorate. President Obama’s Jobs Bill, introduced twenty days ago, would provide a real, albeit too small, stimulus to the economy, specifically through the construction and refurbishment of infrastructure.* But the legislation has yet to be introduced in either house of Congress. Meanwhile, getting any transportation spending approved other than short-term extensions of the previous multi-year bill (which expired 729 days ago) has been impossible thanks to disagreement between the parties and a general reluctance to identify funding sources.

When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives early this year, they promised to fight to eliminate previously approved grants for states across the nation to invest in intercity rail projects. Facing a Democratic Senate, that would not be an easy proposition, but the intense effort to reduce government spending over the past year could have meant the loss of funds already promised to states — but for projects not quite ready for prime time.

In the meantime, the Department of Transportation has been pushing grants out of the federal government’s hands as quickly as possible so that they can not be rescinded.

In September alone, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for intercity rail upgrades nationwide: $149 million for New York State, $116 million for New England, $49 million for Texas, $48 million for North Carolina and Virginia, $35 million for the Northeast Corridor, $31 million for Washington State, and $13 million for Oregon, among others. Earlier this summer, hundreds of millions of dollars were appropriated to California and the Northeast. Unless states turn back the money, unlikely considering that the projects have gotten so far and their pro-rail sponsors, these funds cannot be taken back by Congress.

It’s worth questioning how ready most of these states are to use these funds now that they have them, or how quickly they’ll be able to get construction started. The first high-speed rail grants were announced in January 2010; other than the project to upgrade tracks between Chicago and St. Louis, has any major construction begun?

The DOT, perhaps, wouldn’t be rushing these grants out to the states if it were completely confident that the high-speed and intercity rail funding program were alive and well. Under an Obama Administration and a fully Democratic Congress, that would be likely.

But the Senate came very close a week and a half ago to approving a fiscal year 2012 budget that had no money at all for high-speed rail — and Mr. Obama seemed ready to go along, in the spirit of budget-cutting bipartisanship. The compromise that was eventually reached last week saved $100 million for the mode (a pittance compared to years passed), though even that could face considerable obstacles in the House.

Though Republicans now seem willing to spend a bit more money on transportation than they did a few months back because of an outcry that set in once it became clear that initial plans would reduce funding (and therefore transportation-related jobs) by 30%, their investment strategies would do little to increase the annual federal appropriations now spent on mobility. We are at a standstill, unable to make a big move.

What has been made manifest over the past few months is that President Obama’s efforts to alter American transport policy have been far from universally accepted, that their long-term effect on U.S. mobility is unclear, and that the DOT has been forced to descend into a defensive mode in which it has no choice but to push grants out as quickly as it can for fears that legislators will change their minds mid-stream.

Mr. Obama’s affection for high-speed rail is well-known, and he has included it as an integral element of his transportation plans from the beginning, unlike former President Bill Clinton, who said he cared about intercity rail during the 1992 campaign but then proceeded to forget about it. Yet, possibly because of low approval ratings stemming from other issues, the current Administration has been unable to convince other politicians — especially many Republicans — that such projects are worthy of investment. Mr. Obama’s message, rebooted several times (first as a way to “win the future,” then as part of the Jobs Bill), simply has not come across loud and clear.

These difficulties, along with the GOP-Governor-forced destruction of three marquee projects in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, has once again reinforced the idea that Americans simply cannot handle the idea of spending government funds on intercity rail — despite the quite positive effects it has produced abroad. The fact that the Congress continues to debate transportation investments in terms of mode, with a certain pot of money reserved for roads, another pot for transit, etc., suggests that few in power have taken seriously the concept that transportation decision-making should be mode-neutral and oriented towards providing the best-possible mobility, economic, and environmental benefits. The fact that future rail investments are predicated on getting specific outlays for that mode is a sad reflection of the way we currently invest in our travel corridors and in our cities;  we seem to be considering mostly vehicles, not the passengers in them.

So the DOT moves forward, articulating a strategy to distribute the funds it does have as quickly as possible. This is not a long-term approach and it is not a sustainable one.

* The U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced how Mr. Obama’s Jobs Bill dollars would be distributed: $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges; $9 billion for rebuilding transit systems; $5 billion for TIGER-like competitive grants; $4 billion for high-speed rail projects, $3 billion for aviation improvements; and $10 billion for an infrastructure bank.

Image above: Albany-Rensselaer Station, set to receive aid from the Federal Railroad Administration for improvements, from Flickr user mava (cc).