Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Transport: Never Mind Rail...

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This blog has been relatively cynical about the $8 billion that was to be devoted to "high speed rail" projects from the Recovery Act in the United States, as announced in January. While calling it all "high speed rail" was an almost-pathological overstatement of the projects that were funded, it looked like some serious improvement to rail infrastructure was going to take place in a number of states, and California and Florida, at least, would actually be able to start building true dedicated right-of-way, 200+ mile per hour lines that most of the world would view as high speed rail.

One election later, that's apparently not the case. Most dramatically, almost immediately after the election, Wisconsin stopped all work on a project that would have created a high-speed passenger rail corridor between Madison and Milwaukee. Governor-elect Scott Walker had promised during the campaign that he would kill the project to save money, re-iterated after the election that he would keep this promise, and as a result sitting governor Jim Doyle, a rail supporter, immediately halted all work so as to avoid throwing money away on a project that would be stopped just months later. Assuming that nothing changes, Wisconsin will forfeit the $823 million in Federal funds it had been awarded for the project--and it isn't especially clear how much money it will actually save the state, as the federal money was going to fund essentially the complete project, assuming no cost over-runs.

The same thing has happened in Ohio. Newly elected Governor John Kasich also campaigned against the creation of a rail corridor in his state. As a result, work is being stopped on the "3C" line connecting Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland, and as a result $400 million will be returned to Washington D.C. The situation in Florida may prove similar--Rick Scott campaigned against the Orlando to Tampa true high speed line because it was expected to cost the state about $280 million, but seems to be doing a reasoned analysis now, rather than simply rejecting $2 billion in federal money that most expect to grow to about $2.3 billion if the project proceeds. It remains to be seen if Florida will really leave $2 billion or more on the table.

Adding to the anti-rail environment while not part of the Recovery Act situation, New Jersey governor Chris Christie has also killed a $8.7 billion project to create an additional rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Of all the projects mentioned here, this one did stand on the most dubious financial ground--New Jersey could have been on the hook for substantial potential cost overruns--and the political history of the project could be characterized as sketchy. Still, it fit the pattern of a Republican governor killing a rail infrastructure project.

With the money to be refunded to the Federal government only available for rail projects by law, some of the states whose projects were underfunded or not funded at all may yet end up getting funds. Many pundits, however, believe that the returned money will end up going to California, which still seems to be serious about building its high speed line despite its overall financial situation--and it is possible that new legislation may be passed that will simply eliminate the funds and put them toward debt reduction.

What Walker, Christie, Kasich, and (at least during the campaign) Scott all have in common, besides being Republicans, is the claim that their states could not afford rail infrastructure, that it was not an appropriate thing for the state to be spending money on, and that the projects would be a waste of money as not all state citizens would use the systems. The logic really doesn't hold up--taxes go to everything from public schools to air traffic control that not everyone uses, and rail infrastructure is no different conceptually from road infrastructure that seems to draw no complaints when it is funded by stimulus funds.

The truly amazing claim is the first one, that the rail infrastructure cannot be afforded. People from the same party that constantly claim that the United States is exceptional and does not need to look to foreign models are basically admitting that we do not have the money to spend on infrastructure that China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and even Turkey do have. When the United States wakes up and discovers that it is in the in a second tier of nations, one thing it will be able to look back on is the mass cancellation of rail infrastructure projects in 2010.

{And it's hard to ignore the Onion's take on the situation.}

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