DOT High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

A Last Gasp for the Initial Intercity Rail Grants

» For the first time, the Department of Transportation makes a major effort to use high-speed rail grants to invest in the Northeast Corridor.

After months of complaints that the U.S. DOT was not focused enough on the needs of its densest and most productive metropolitan area, the agency has agreed to appropriate almost $800 million to the Northeast Corridor — enough to begin work on upgrades to the main line between New York and Philadelphia.

Also winning major new grants for rail upgrades are Michigan, Illinois, and New York State. California will receive another $300 million to pursue construction on the Central Valley segment of its planned new San Francisco-to-Los Angeles main line.

This is the third major release of rail funds from the federal government after similar announcements in January, October, and December 2010.

The $2 billion in projects funded today are taking advantage of the decision in February by Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) to abandon his state’s efforts to construct a new rail line between Tampa and Orlando, despite the fact that the line’s construction would have been almost fully paid for by the federal government. Numerous studies projected it to be operationally profitable. The governors of the states that received awards today are unanimously supportive of intercity rail projects in their respective states, so they are unlikely to turn back the funds.

These grants are the last of their kind: The election of a Republican majority to the U.S. House of Representatives has put a block in the Obama Administration’s efforts to continue funding for rail projects. Indeed, the April budget agreement eliminated such grants entirely for Fiscal Year 2011. Unless there is a significant change of heart among conservative members of the national legislature, there is unlikely to be much more money at least until after the 2012 elections.

Nonetheless, the commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Northeast is likely to be well-received politically. After all, at the root of much of the criticism of the Administration’s rail grants has been its focus on places like California and Florida, which have been (inappropriately) construed as the “wrong places” for initial investments. At least so far, few have objected to the notion that the Boston-Washington corridor deserves — and needs — better rail service.

Specified for funding are $450 million in improvements on a 24-mile section of track from New York and Philadelphia (between New Brunswick and Morrisville) that will allow 160 mph service there and $295 million for a bypass around the Harold Interlocking in Queens, now a major impediment to the smooth-running of trains into and out of Manhattan. Three projects worth a total of $50 million in Maryland and Rhode Island will also attempt to increase capacity marginally on the corridor.

What remains far off is Amtrak’s $117 billion vision for a brand-new high-speed rail line connecting the Northeast’s biggest cities. Though the national rail agency asked for funds to begin studying a new trans-Hudson tunnel between New York and New Jersey called the Gateway project, it came away empty-handed this time around as the government has made the right-headed decision that with limited funds only much-needed upgrades to the existing line should be pursued.

The complete renewal of the Northeast Corridor will probably have to wait until something akin to President Obama’s $53 billion intercity rail plan is agreed to by the Congress, unlikely in these deficit-obsessed times.

Fortunately for the rest of the country, the new focus on the Northeast has not prevented the government from awarding grants to other states including California, which now has enough money to complete a 133-mile segment of the first phase of its statewide system. Tracks are now funded for the entire corridor from Bakersfield north of Fresno to the wye where trains will eventually head off either north to Sacramento or northwest to San Francisco. With $10 billion in state funds and $4 billion in federal funds now committed to this program, this project is well on its way to getting off the ground.

Also moving forward are upgrade projects in Illinois, Michigan, and New York State, where Amtrak services will be significantly improved to allow for faster travel times. On top of the previously awarded funds, Michigan will be able to offer 110 mph service on the 135-mile track segment between Kalamazoo and Dearborn by 2013, saving passengers up to 50 minutes between Detroit and Chicago. The funds for Illinois will continue to improve service on the route between Chicago and St. Louis. And New York will be able to relieve the bottleneck that occurs at the Albany-Rensselaer Station with $58 million in grants.

California and the Midwest will receive $68 million and $268.2 million, respectively, for the purchase of new trainsets to be used on existing Amtrak routes. A similar $100 million grant was provided to the Golden State two weeks ago for new train cars and locomotives.

Double tracking of existing lines and minor improvements in capacity will be funded in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Texas has been awarded $15 million to pursue studies on a future true high-speed rail corridor between Dallas and Houston.

DOT Announces Third Round of High-Speed Rail Grants
StateAwards in HSR III (m$)Awards in HSR I&II (m$)Total AwardsNew Projects Funded in HSR III
California3683866.14234.1New cars; Extension of Central Valley line to Wye
Illinois186.312811467.3Chicago-St Louis
Northeast Corridor795125.3920.3Capacity Improvements
Washington15782.3797.3Port of Vancouver Grade Separation
North Carolina4569.7573.7Piedmont Corridor Service Enhancement
Midwest Region Service268.20268.2New rail cars for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri
New York59.4184.8244.2Empire Corridor Capacity Improvements
Connecticut30160.9190.0Double tracking New Haven-Springfield
Massachusetts20.872.893.6Double Tracking Wilmington-Andover
Pennsylvania4026.266.2Keystone Interlocking Upgrades
Missouri13.536.850.3New Mississippi River Bridge
Minnesota54045Northern Lights Express Planning
Texas15621Planning for Dallas-Houston Express HSR
Oregon1.513.615.1Eugene Stub Tracks
Amtrak DOT Finance High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail President

The White House Stakes Its Political Capital on a Massive Intercity Rail Plan

» $53 billion proposed for investments over the next six years. The President wants to “Win the Future,” but will his Republican opponents relax their opposition to rail spending?

Vice President Joe Biden spoke in Philadelphia this morning to announce that the Obama Administration intends to request from Congress $8 billion in federal funds for the advancement of a national high-speed rail system as part of a six-year transportation reauthorization bill.

The White House’s commitment to fast trains has been evident throughout the Administration’s two-year lifespan, beginning with the addition of $8 billion for the mode in the 2009 stimulus bill and continued with $2.5 billion included in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. Yet this new funding, which would add up to $53 billion over the six-year period, is remarkable for its ambition. It is clear that President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, already being framed in terms of “winning the future,” will hinge partially on whether voters agree with his assessment of the importance of investing in the nation’s rail transport infrastructure.

In his speech, Mr. Biden argued that American wealth was founded on “out-building” the competition. Infrastructure, he noted, is the “veins and the arteries of commerce.” The President and his team will be making this case to the American people the next two years, hoping that the public comes to endorse this message of national advancement through construction.

Whether the proposal — to be laid out in more detail with next week’s introduction the President’s full proposed FY 2012 budget — has any chance of success is undoubtedly worth questioning. Republicans have campaigned wholeheartedly against rail improvement projects in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin; even Florida’s project, which would require no operating subsidies once in service, hangs in the balance. But as part of the larger transportation reauthorization legislation, which is apparently slated to move forward by this summer, a real expansion in high-speed rail funding seems possible, especially if Mr. Obama pressures the Democratic-controlled Senate to push hard for it.

Of course, as has become typical whenever anyone has announced new transportation investments, it is not yet clear what specific revenue sources would fund high-speed rail.

The $53 billion down-payment on intercity rail would be the first step in the White House’s goal to connect 80% of the country’s population to the mode in 25 years. Funding would be allocated through two accounts: One would essentially be a New Starts capital expansion fund that would construct new lines and stations; the other would renew the existing system to bring it within a state of good repair. Importantly, the latter fund would also “provide temporary operating support to crucial state corridors while the full system is being built and developed.” This implies that the Obama Administration believes that states will continue to be skeptical of funding train operations — so the federal government must step in until self-financing high-speed lines can pay for themselves.

The plan does not specify which corridors would receive funds if the money were awarded. This implies that spending would be distributed in the same manner that have been the U.S. DOT’s grants over the past year: Through merit-based awards ultimately allocated by the Secretary of Transportation.

Big projects — such as California’s High-Speed Rail line and Amtrak’s just-announced Gateway Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan — would undoubtedly move forward, but Mr. Biden sketched out a vision of a high-speed network that is “modern, efficient, environmentally friendly, and truly national.” This suggests that the Administration will seek to invest in rail infrastructure across the country, not just in the densest areas.

This stance is likely to attract some Republican support, especially from people representing rural districts that rely on even once-daily trains: It is worth remembering that despite being put on the chopping block year after year by the Bush Administration, Amtrak managed to hang on to its federal support even when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate between 2002 and 2007.

Nonetheless, the Republicans at the helm of the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Railroads, John Mica (R-FL) and Bill Shuster (R-PA), respectively, immediately denounced the plan, suggesting that the Administration was supporting “snail-speed trains to nowhere.” It is not clear to me whether most Republican Party House members will feel this way about needed infrastructure investments in their districts, however, especially if they are combined with the highway funding also to be included in the six-year reauthorization bill.

Mr. Mica and Mr. Shuster latched on to their free-market contention that Amtrak is a “Soviet-style train system [that is a] failed… monopoly” and that only the private sector is capable of developing high-speed rail, a sentiment that may be appealing to their right-wing compatriots but is unrealistic considering that almost every train improvement project in the world has at least partially been aided by government investments.

They also repeated the now-familiar contention that the Obama Administration had been remiss in not finding adequate funding for the Northeast Corridor, whose renovation now appears to have bipartisan support. This could, as Benjamin Kabak and Jeremy Steinemann have written, be good news for projects such as the Gateway Tunnel. One can imagine a compromise in which Congressional Republicans agree to some funding for intercity rail in the transportation bill, as long as the majority of dollars go towards the Northeast Corridor.

Whatever the immediate success of the President’s proposal, Mr. Obama is making evident his plan to promote himself as the candidate for a renewed America, one in which the future is won through public investment in essential infrastructure. This represents a very real contrast to the political posturing of his Republican opponents, who have been staking their political cause on being opposed to government spending of almost any type. Mr. Biden concluded his speech with the following:

“If we do not take this step now, if we do not seize the future, you tell me how America is going to have the opportunity to lead the world economy in the 21st Century like we did in the 20th. We cannot settle. We are determined to lead again. And this is the beginning of our effort to, once again, lead the future.”

* The map at the top of this article represents my interpretation of what connecting 80% of America to the intercity rail network would mean; it is not based on any government publication.

Amtrak High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail Metro Rail New Jersey New York

ARC Revived as the Amtrak Gateway Project

» New rail tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan, left for dead a few months ago, comes roaring back as the Gateway Tunnel. Yet it now faces competition for limited funds.

Amtrak will not allow itself to miss the train for President Obama’s effort to “win the future.” Two weeks after the State of the Union address, in which Mr. Obama announced his intention to promote a high-speed rail system that connects 80% of the country’s population, the national railroad has made its first move.

This morning, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman and New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez headlined a press conference in which the railroad articulated a basic framework for a new rail tunnel into Manhattan. The connection — named the Gateway Project — would generally follow the alignment of the Access to the Region’s Core project, a $10 billion link that would have carried New Jersey Transit commuter trains into a new terminal before it was cancelled last October by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who cited state budget concerns for his decision.

In connection with the replacement of the moribund Portal Bridge just west of Secaucus Station, the Gateway Tunnel would represent the first, $13.5 billion, step in Amtrak’s $117.5 billion plan to upgrade the entire Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to 220 mph speeds. Completion of this stage is proposed for 2020.

Though the necessity of a new rail link between New Jersey and Manhattan has been evident for years because of increased passenger traffic and decaying infrastructure, the decision by Mr. Christie appeared to have put any such project on hold for a decade or more, since funds committed to the project — $3 billion from both the Port Authority and the Federal Transit Administration — would be redistributed. But this announcement from Amtrak changes the equation significantly. In light of the President’s active support of high-speed rail and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica’s excitement about the Northeast Corridor, it may well be a viable program.

No funding is currently available for the project, even the $50 million necessary to kickstart engineering studies. In addition, the Gateway Tunnel faces competition that has arisen since ARC was cancelled: A potential extension of the New York Subway’s 7 Train, a project that Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed in recent months.

That project could arguably be constructed for fewer funds, since it would require little new tunneling under expensive Manhattan real estate. In addition, the Subway link would have the serious advantage of direct service to Grand Central Terminal and Queens, 24 hours a day — something neither New Jersey Transit or Amtrak will be able to offer. (Amtrak proposes to loop the 7 Train east along 31st Street to serve the station, a questionable proposition.)

Nonetheless, the Gateway Tunnel would service to reinforce the Northeast Corridor intercity rail system far more significantly, and even more than ARC would have. That’s because, unlike ARC, the Gateway Tunnel would be connected to Penn Station, allowing Amtrak trains running from Washington to Boston to use the link. Several new dead-end platforms would be constructed just south of the existing station, forming a new terminus for New Jersey Transit and opening up more space in the existing Penn Station for Amtrak and potentially Metro-North trains from Upstate New York and Connecticut.

ARC would have dead-ended into a cavern far underground, making it both incompatible with the existing rail network but also deeply inconvenient to its riders, who would have had to ride long escalators to the top.

The new tunnel’s capacity would be split between Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, with 8 intercity trains and 13 commuter trains per hour (added to 12 and 20, respectively, today). This represents a decrease from the 25 additional hourly commuter trains ARC would have provided. The plans to connect the Bergen and Passaic lines to ARC to allow for direct service to Manhattan have been abandoned.

Yet the advantages of allowing through trains to use this facility ultimately mean Amtrak will not have to build yet another link under the Hudson in the coming years, as it had planned. In addition, the Gateway Tunnel would provide a vital backup in case something goes wrong with the 100-year-old tunnels currently serving trains between Manhattan and New Jersey.

Amtrak will have to construct a very careful case for its project in order to assemble the necessary funding, especially in the context of a Republican Congress that has made cutting national investments its major priority. Unlike ARC, Gateway would serve intercity as well as commuter traffic, so it is unclear whether the Federal Transit Administration would agree to sign up to aid in sponsoring it. On the other hand, the Federal Railroad Administration, which administers high-speed rail funds, might want to get involved — but this project would do nothing to speed up trains, since it would simply duplicate a service that already exists.

Ultimately, the national railroad’s best argument for the project is that it would serve national economic growth objectives, providing just the sort of infrastructure repair that the President has so forcefully recommended. It would be difficult even for conservative Republicans to argue that this project does not fulfill Washington’s mandate to improve the nation’s transportation systems, since it is of course at its core a connection between two states.

Images above: Amtrak Gateway Project Maps, from Amtrak

DOT High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

As Ohio and Wisconsin Sink into Self-Imposed Austerity, California and Florida Profit on Rail

» Florida’s high-speed project is now fully funded from the federal government; California is closer to connecting Fresno with Bakersfield. Other states, including Washington and Illinois, also receive major allocations.

Ohio and Wisconsin will not be getting the new intercity rail lines whose construction Washington agreed to fully fund just ten months ago. The November election of Republican governors meant the revocation of state support for projects that would have connected some Midwestern cities to the national rail network for the first time in decades, including along a line between Milwaukee and Madison and another between Cleveland and Cincinnati. These politicians ran successful campaigns partly based on a refusal to subsidize future train operations.

Today, the federal Department of Transportation announced that it would reappropriate the $1.2 billion in funds once meant for Ohio and Wisconsin to thirteen other states, with the large majority heading to California and Florida, which are building the nation’s only true high-speed lines. Wisconsin will be able to keep $14 million, a tiny fraction of its original award, to spend on improving the existing Amtrak Hiawatha service.

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority will receive $624 million in funds, increasing the state’s total take in the national intercity rail program to $3.9 billion. It announced late last month that it would build a 65-mile corridor in the state’s Central Valley for the first phase of what will eventually be a $45 billion network of 220 mph trains connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego. $616 million of the allocations received today will be dedicated specifically to extend that initial line south to Bakersfield. This should relieve the recently popular rhetoric that the project is a “train to nowhere” because its initial construction would terminate in the little-known city of Corcoran; the new expenditures would connect Fresno and Bakersfield, whose metropolitan areas collectively house 1.7 million people, no insignificant sum. That said, future funding from Washington will be necessary to pay for the whole project, even on top of the $10 billion approved for the project by state taxpayers in 2008.

While smaller, Florida’s $342 million grant represents the last piece of federal funding necessary to pay for an 84-mile line planned for the Tampa-Orlando corridor, along which trains traveling at up to 186 mph will run by 2015 if all goes to plan. As long as the proposal is signed off by new Governor Rick Scott — not the world’s biggest rail supporter, but not fully against it either — construction could begin in 2012. The $2.7 billion project now has $2.35 billion in U.S. funds backing it and $280 million in state funds committed.

Governor Scott is likely to be searching for private partners to cover those latter costs, since he suggested during the campaign that he didn’t want his state’s taxpayers to be on the line for any of the program’s costs. The announcement earlier this week that Japan’s JR Central railroad was willing to offer the state a $210 million loan for the line and that China’s CSR Corp will invest in U.S. manufacturing with General Electric in order to improve its chance to win the right to operate lines in Florida and California should assure him that such aid is forthcoming if a deal that allows the private company to collect ticket revenues is negotiated. Virtually every high-speed rail system in the world is operationally profitable.

The announcement by the Department of Transportation a month before the sitting of the new Congress, in which the House of Representatives will be Republican-led, was likely strategic, designed to prevent the projects in California and Florida from being de-funded, as some have suggested. Incoming House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica of Florida has previously stated his skepticism about the Tampa-Orlando line, even arguing that it be curtailed to a 20-mile segment between the Orlando Airport and the Disney amusement parks. But the full-funding of the project made possible today seems to have convinced Mr. Mica of the full project’s merits. He was quoted in the Tampa Bay Business Journal as saying that “This means we could probably construct the line (to Tampa) without taxpayers underwriting the cost of it,” and that it is therefore an acceptable investment. I assume he meant the State of Florida when he said “taxpayers,” since the national rail program is of course being sponsored by debt that will eventually have to be paid back.

With full support from the incoming Governor of California Jerry Brown, the federal government has now virtually ensured construction will begin on these two significant projects. They must be undertaken very carefully since they represent the first American efforts to invest in true high-speed rail on new, dedicated corridors. The federal government must monitor each project’s progress with an eye towards keeping costs in line and completion on time.

The Department of Transportation has not, however, abandoned its interest in slower-speed intercity rail projects, despite the abandoning of the Ohio and Wisconsin lines. Washington state received some $161 million to improve the line between the Oregon and Canadian borders. Other states, including Illinois, New York, and Maine, will benefit from smaller grants detailed in the table at the conclusion of this article.

The government is likely to have another $1 billion to spend on intercity rail programs in Fiscal Year 2011, based on the budget bill the House of Representatives passed yesterday. That legislation must be approved by the Senate before it enters into law.

U.S. High-Speed Rail Awards

StateNew Awards (m$)Total Awards (m$)Funding Lost (m$)
North Carolina1.5569.70
New York7.3184.80
Northeast Corridor0125.30

Image above: Proposed Downtown Tampa High-Speed Rail station, from Florida Department of Transportation

Congress Elections High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

Republican Wave Could Spell Trouble for High-Speed Rail Projects from Coast to Coast

» With governorships up for grabs in most of the nation’s states, local support for more spending on infrastructure could be eliminated.

Intent on demonstrating their resistance to virtually all of President Obama’s policy objectives, Republicans nationwide have staked out an anti-rail position that they hope will stand out as the fiscally reasonable choice when they present themselves in this fall’s elections. Though the current Democratic administration will remain in power at least until early 2013, shifting control of Congress and potential power changes at the state level could dramatically reduce the ability of the Department of Transportation to advance its plans for the development of intercity rail.

Current polling suggests that Republicans are likely to do well in November across the country. The GOP has been leading the charge against high-speed rail since the program was first announced in February 2009.

Most problematic are the governorships, up for grabs in 37 of 50 states this year. Though the majority of recent spending on new intercity rail projects has originated at the federal government, the U.S. DOT is now requiring that state applicants agree to fund at least 20% of construction costs in order to receive a federal contribution. States will also be responsible for most operations expenses.

If Republican-led state governments are unwilling to commit to spending their own dollars on these projects, they simply will not be built. Since intercity rail projects are long-term investments, even if the federal government has already agreed to sponsor some investments, the takeover of a governor’s mansion by an anti-rail Republican could mean putting a full-stop in infrastructure development. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s announcement last week of a work stoppage on the ARC tunnel project shows, this could affect even projects that have already entered the construction phase.

As the table below demonstrates, the current difficulties of Democratic candidates puts in doubt almost every project that has thus far been allocated significant capital funding from Washington. Current polling is based on analysis by political blog Campaign Diaries.

Where U.S. High-Speed Rail Projects Stand
StateAmount Received from US DOT (million $)Current PollingGOP Candidate Position on HSRDem Candidate Position on HSR
Illinois1240Lean GOPSupportsSupports
Wisconsin822Lean GOPOpposesSupports
North Carolina545n/an/an/a
Ohio400Lean GOPOpposesSupports
New York151Strong DemUnclearSupports
Massachusetts70Lean DemOpposesSupports
Connecticut40Likely DemUnclearSupports
Michigan40Likely GOPUnclearUnclear
Iowa17Lean GOPUnclearSupports

Most directly threatened are projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican candidates have been waging an all-out war on high-speed rail, calling it a major waste of taxpayer funds. In both states, Republicans have suggested that they would shut down projects because they do not want state taxes to be used to subsidize operations on relatively low-speed rail systems. And those individuals are poised to win in November.

In California and Florida, both of which are proposing full-scale true high-speed networks, GOP candidates have suggested that they too would disrupt completion of their respective projects. Meg Whitman, running as the Republican candidate in California, has said shebelieves the state cannot afford the costs associated with high-speed rail due to our current fiscal crisis.” These races are currently rated as a tossup, just as likely to go Democratic as Republican. The current governors of California and Florida — both moderate Republicans — have been in recent years sponsors of rail investment, but they aren’t likely to pass on that view to their successors, even if they share political stripes.

In all four states, the Democratic candidate has been a proponent of increased intercity rail investment. States where Democratic candidates are expected to win — including New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — can be expected to continue their promotion of local funding for rail. States in which there is no gubernatorial race this year, such as Missouri, North Carolina, Washington, and Virginia, are unlikely to diverge from their current pro-rail stances.

But states are just one part of the equation.

Just as problematic is the possibility of a shift of control in Congress, which must approve any federal government spending on rail programs. Though Democrats in power in the House of Representatives and the Senate have agreed to large contributions for the infrastructure effort, GOP Senators have thus far been unwilling to compromise on their distaste for government spending. Though the Senate is unlikely to shift hands, the almost certain decline in the current Democratic majority will mean further difficulties in getting new spending approved, such as President Obama’s proposed $50 billion down-payment in rail and highways.

The possibility that the majority in the House of Representatives could shift to the GOP column — more likely than a change in control of the Senate — is incredibly threatening to the agenda of promoting intercity rail as well, since the House must of course also approve any government spending.

For proponents of intercity rail development, election 2010 will not bring positive change.