Talk about a blessing in disguise. Just as the Obama administration’s high-speed rail program was running out of congressionally-appropriated cash, Governor-elects Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio have come chugging to the rescue.
By vowing to kill planned passenger train lines in their states, the newly elected Midwest Republicans have potentially freed $1.2 billion in federal rail money that can be used to build “true” high-speed routes elsewhere. The windfall represents more than the $1 billion that the White House has requested from Congress in next year’s budget. It gives the administration breathing space to keep the program going even if the Republican-led House blocks rail appropriations in 2011.
Since the Wisconsin and Ohio grants are of secondary importance to the national goal of getting a 150-mph-plus rail line up and running, the governors’ anti-train stance amounts to an unintended gift to the Obama administration
To be sure, benefiting high-speed rail was not the intent of Walker and Kasich. Both politicians have a history of hostility to public transit. Walker has opposed light rail, commuter rail and other transit initiatives in his current job as Milwaukee County Executive. Kasich, a former Ohio Congressman turned Fox News host, likes to say that the only kind of train he approves of is a freight train.
Both have called on Washington to divert the rail money to state highway projects. Ray LaHood, U.S. secretary of transportation, said this isn’t permitted under the law. LaHood told a rail conference last week that he plans to reallocate the money to other states and will bill Wisconsin and Ohio for federal funds already spent on the suspended rail lines.
Poor Choices for Rail Aid
The $810 million in Wisconsin money was to extend Amtrak’s existing Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha line to Madison, with a top speed of 79 mph in 2013, rising to 110 mph in 2015; Ohio’s $400 million was to build a Cleveland- Columbus-Cincinnati route operating at 79 mph maximum speeds over existing freight tracks. It received a $400 million grant.
The Obama administration funded these projects largely because they were “shovel ready” (a key criteria of the stimulus act that provided $8 billion in rail aid to states) and because they represented “regional balance” for the Midwest that Congressmen from both parties demand when money is allocated for highways.
As we have argued, spreading out federal funds to too many marginal projects is a mistake operationally and politically. Operationally, intercity passenger rail will succeed only if it provides an obvious and understandable margin of superiority over highway trip times. Politically, moderate-speed lines advertised as high-speed (or as “emerging high speed,” in Obama administration nomenclature) confuses the public and opens up the federal initiative to legitimate criticism.
Studies indicate that somewhat-faster service will not create the transformational transportation that will get Americans out of their cars and jumpstart regional economies. This was underscored by a recent study of high-speed rail compared to conventional rail commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Because the up-front costs of truly modern train lines are high, the administration needs to concentrate on finishing one or two routes with state-of-the-art equipment to prove that fast rail is an efficient and even profitable venture once construction is completed.
Florida Should be Centerpiece
The administration now has the opportunity to fund true high-speed rail by reallocating the Midwest money. It can fully fund the high-speed Tampa-Orlando line in Florida as well as help get a segment of California’s proposed 200-mph railway between San Francisco and Los Angeles into revenue service. There may even be money left over to accelerate “shovel-ready” projects in busy rail corridors with proven ridership in Illinois and Connecticut.
Newly elected California governor Jerry Brown (D) is a strong supporter of his state’s rail program – as is outgoing Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both Illinois incumbent governor Pat Quinn (D) and Connecticut governor-elect Dan Malloy (D) are also pro-train.
Florida’s Republican governor-elect, Rick Scott, initially opposed the Tampa-Orlando line (the current governor, Charlie Crist, supports the project). But Scott has recently relaxed his rhetoric and says he is in favor of high-speed rail so long as Florida taxpayers don’t pay for it.
What reportedly swayed Scott was $800 million in fresh federal funds for the project last month. Florida now has $2.05 billion to complete the $2.6 billion line, including the $1.25 billion in federal funds it received in January.
By reallocating a portion of the Wisconsin-Ohio funds, the $550 million gap could be closed. Or better yet, Washington could encourage private companies to invest in the Florida line by using federal funds as an incentive. Already Siemens, the high-speed locomotive maker, has announced interest in bidding on the Florida project if government shares a portion of the operational risk.
Such a public-private partnership would appear to satisfy Scott’s objections and could go a long way to appease Rep. John Mica (R – Fla.), a fan of public-private rail partnerships who is expected to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in January.
All of this could leave Wisconsin’s and Ohio’s new chief executives on the wrong side of the tracks. Or as a transportation official told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week, “Expanding passenger rail is a national priority. Just because Wisconsin says no doesn’t mean it’s going away.”