Unless the White House acts forcefully and decisively to advance its transportation agenda in Congress, the president’s vision for high-speed rail may get sidetracked by the looming federal deficit.
That’s the growing perception on Capitol Hill as Congress grapples with an infrastructure program that could cost between $22 million and $132 million a mile if developed along the lines of 200-mile-per-hour bullet trains now running in Europe and Asia.
Unlike the health care debate, President Obama has been conspicuously unengaged from the details of how to move his high-speed-rail (HSR) plan from a one-off award program using Recovery Act stimulus funds to a dedicated multi-year program akin to the scope and ambition of the Interstate Highway System.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has raised concerns about the program’s lack of a solid revenue source. In a letter addressed to the president, Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-MN) and Railroad Subcommittee Chair Corrine Brown (D-FL) wrote:
We stand ready to help move your vision of high-speed rail closer to reality. But given budget constraints, we cannot continue to rely on general authorizations and appropriations to finance high-speed rail. We need to identify a dedicated revenue source for high-speed rail, and we need your help to do that.
More than 100 House members signed the letter.
What has especially upset HSR supporters is that, in the wake of $8 billion awarded to states last January under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there is precious little additional funding earmarked for the program.
Congress authorized $2.5 billion for HSR projects in the current fiscal year, but HSR funding then drops to just $1 billion under the administration’s proposed FY 2011 budget.
That’s not enough to complete the 85-mile corridor proposed between Tampa and Orlando, not to speak of helping underwrite such ambitious projects as California’s proposed 800-mile HSR network connecting the state’s largest cities.
A coalition of transportation advocacy groups is calling on Congress to appropriate $4 billion for high-speed rail in 2011. Tomorrow the coalition will hold a press conference at Washington’s Union Station to present their case, with Rep. Brown among those scheduled to speak.
Last summer, Oberstar’s committee introduced a draft bill that would place $50 billion in the reauthorized surface transportation program to fund HSR development over the next six years. The actual method of funding the program was left open “in hopes that the administration would help Congress identify a dedicated revenue source for high-speed rail,” according to Oberstar.
The establishment of a national infrastructure bank, which would leverage private capital, has been discussed as a possible source for rail funding. Oberstar has embraced this idea in principle.
Another idea is to raise the federal tax on gasoline (which was last raised 28 years ago during the Reagan administration) to increase the revenue stream to the Highway Trust Fund. Some portion of the trust fund would then go to HSR development.
For its part, the administration opposes a gas tax increase and has proposed a more modest transportation infrastructure fund. Financed with $4 billion in public money, the bank would help bankroll transportation projects of national significance, presumably including HSR. This proposal has yet to be taken up by Congress.
Like any political vacuum in Washington, the absence of a strategy to pay for high-speed rail has emboldened critics of the program.
Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), the ranking minority member of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, last month lambasted the administration for spending funds on expensive trains during a budget crunch. “With a $12 trillion and growing [federal] deficit, we can’t just throw funds at projects willy-nilly,” he said.
Patty Murray (D-WA), chair of the Senate panel, also questioned the absence of a long-term plan by the administration.
While some of this criticism is ill-founded – the administration is on target for completing a National Rail Plan by the date requested by Congress — what the carping on Capitol Hill makes clear is that both sides of the aisle recognize that a modern rail infrastructure will be very expensive to build.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to commit to a potentially unpopular funding mechanism — such as an increase in the gas tax — that could jumpstart HSR development and allow states, manufacturers and potential rail operators to make long-term investments in infrastructure and manpower.
The need for administration leadership is clear. Lest he watch his vision dissolve in drift and delay, the president must make the case that a national program of rail construction will not only unsnarl our highways, but stimulate economic growth (with new jobs and emerging technologies) and protect our national security (by breaking our dependence on foreign oil). The time to start is now.