Thursday, January 28, 2010

Transport: Deciphering "High Speed" Funding

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Those hoping for high-speed rail in the United States are likely a bit confused by where the $8 billion in Recovery Act money designated for high speed rail will be spent. President Obama and Amtrak-riding Vice-President Biden announced today that only two true "high speed" projects would receive funding, in California and Florida. However, a number of other states will receive money to incrementally improve their conventional services. What's going on here?

Cynics would say this is only about politics. While certain "blue" states (California, Illinois, Maine, Washington, and Wisconsin) are being rewarded under this view with significant project funding, swing states are over-represented, with Florida getting the only complete high-speed system funded, North Carolina getting a significant grant, and Ohio getting perhaps the most unexpected grant, $400 million to improve infrastructure for new corridors within that state, which sees only Amtrak long-distance service at odd hours presently. "Red" states? There is just a small grant to Texas and some spillover money for Missouri from the Chicago-St. Louis corridor that will go to states that did not vote for Obama.

I'm not going to argue that politics played no role here, but there may actually be a policy strategy here that makes sense which I have yet to see presented elsewhere. For a long time, advocates have been arguing that a demonstration corridor was needed to show what a high speed rail corridor could do. Orlando to Tampa, Florida has apparently been selected as that demonstration corridor, and in that regard, it's an interesting choice. It's long enough--80 miles--to show the speed advantages of high-speed rail, but short enough to be relatively inexpensive to build, and it has the interesting advantage of competing mostly just with the automobile--few fly for that short of a distance, and Amtrak runs only long-distance trains between the two cities. The only inexplicable part is that the Federal money will only pay for about half the cost of the project--Florida will have to come up with the rest of the money on its own, and in its current budgetary situation that's far from certain.

The bulk of the rest of the money went mostly to states that have already demonstrated an ability to effectively improve existing service. The California money may be designated for the high-speed system supported by Governor Schwarzenegger, but California has been the national leader in using state funds to create meaningful corridors, with the greatest success achieved in the "Pacific Surfliner" corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles and on to the Central Coast, and the "Capitol" corridor between San Jose and Sacramento. Washington received a significant grant which fits right into its incremental approach that has already shaved a half-hour off the travel time between Seattle and Portland, Oregon and increased the number of corridor trips from one to four in the past fifteen years. Maine fought almost single-handed to create and improve the Portland to Boston, Massachusetts "Downeaster" corridor which also runs through New Hampshire and now may get to extend its corridor to Brunswick, with a goal of reaching the capitol in Augusta.

From a policy perspective, that just might make sense--get a demonstration corridor going, encourage the states that have invested in rail by reinforcing the investment, and hope that by setting this precedent, other states will start to invest. It's hardly a bold move, but perhaps it sets the stage for a further round of investment someday if the demonstration corridor becomes popular. The Obama administration is all about hope, isn't it?

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