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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

House subcommittee hearing: Mica, Shuster, LaHood debate administration's execution of HSR program


On Dec. 6, the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials held a hearing to discuss the status of high-speed rail development in the United States.

Titled, “The Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Intercity Rail Program: Mistakes and Lessons Learned,” the hearing featured comments from T&I Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), railroad subcommittee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and a handful of committee members, as well as testimony from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission Chairman Joan McDonald, public policy consultant Ken Orski, Cornell University Associate Professor, Department of Policy Analysis and Management Richard Geddes and National Association of Railroad Passengers President and Chief Executive Officer Ross Capon.

Mica opened the hearing by reiterating his disappointment with how the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has distributed the $8 billion in stimulus funds and $2.1 billion in FY2010 transportation appropriations funds — and how long it’s taken to put the money to work.

“I’m very concerned about the process of actually achieving a successful high-speed rail program. The failure to date I think actually sets us further behind because there are many critics … and unfortunately, it gives them more ammunition to undermine what should be a positive alternative means of transportation,” he said.

The high-speed rail (HSR) funds should have been awarded to projects that would achieve high average speeds — at least 110 mph, Mica added. Three of the projects that received a large chunk of federal funds — Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Detroit and Portland, Ore.-Vancouver-Wash. — will only reach average speeds of 71 mph, 64 mph and 65 mph, respectively, Mica said.

“These projects will continue to give high-speed rail a bad name in the United States, because they will not operate at high speeds,” he said.

Direct funds to NEC, Mica says
Ultimately, the United States needs a high-speed rail success story, and the most logical place to build a true high-speed rail system in the Northeast Corridor, Mica believes. The federal government owns the corridor, the region has the population density necessary to support high-speed intercity train operations and, for the most part, passenger trains do not share track with freight trains. However, that project has been delayed, too, with the USDOT taking three years to award a contract for an environmental review of the corridor, he added.

Shuster also believes the Obama administration should begin focusing all its high-speed rail development efforts in the Northeast Corridor. The country doesn’t have funding available to build a national high-speed network, nor is there a need right now for 80 percent of the U.S. population to have access to HSR, as proposed in President Obama long-term vision, Shuster said.

“I do believe there are corridors in this country that need high-speed rail and we should be focused on them, but we’re not, in this form,” he said. “We’re spreading money all over the country.”

Instead, the administration should continue to advance projects in the Northeast, such as the Portal Bridge and Baltimore Tunnel replacements.

“If we’re really serious about getting high-speed rail, we need to find one place in the country, spend the money to do it right, learn from it and then take it to other corridors that will emerge in the future,” Shuster said.

Shuster then directed his comments to LaHood.

“I urge you to go back and sit down with the president and really reevaluate what we’re doing here, because I don’t believe we’ll be able to have high-speed rail across the country,” he said. “We can’t afford it and people aren’t really clamoring for it, but they are clamoring for better intercity rail and higher-speed rail.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) disagreed. Playing off the hearings title, she detailed mistakes she thinks have been made by Congress and some state governors during the past several years with regard to HSR development.

“We failed to dedicate any significant funds for intercity passenger rail. Then, we invite private companies, including some of the biggest rail operators and manufacturers in the world, to invest their time and resources into vying for parts of U.S. high-speed rail markets, only to slam the door in their face by cancelling projects and cutting federal funds,”  she said.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) also addressed LaHood, other committee members and hearing attendees — specifically, relaying his thoughts on California’s project. Costs for the project have escalated to $98 billion, and Denham is concerned there isn’t a solid enough plan to fund the project going forward.

“We have $3.6 billion obligated, but where do we come up with the remaining $95 billion? What’s the state’s obligation? What is the local obligation? And where are the private investors that we continue to hear about?” he said.

Denham also took issue with the amount of time it’s taken California and other states to launch their projects.

“We have been hearing about shovel-ready projects for some time now,” he said. “The stimulus package passed in 2009, yet we’re going into 2012 and we have not one shovel going into the ground. Letting a pool of money just sit there I think is irresponsible.”

LaHood: An integrated approach necessary for HSR success
LaHood addressed criticisms and questions during his testimony.

HSR has been a U.S. priority for decades — under both Republican and Democratic leadership — and states reaffirmed that priority by submitting applications totaling $75 billion for the $8 billion provided under the stimulus bill, LaHood said. The difference now is that President Obama is “putting his money where his mouth is,” he added.

“We’re hiring workers, laying track and building stations,” he said. “High-speed rail is coming to America — it’s here.”

LaHood went on to say that HSR is needed in order for the United States to remain competitive and handle future population growth. And the administration is carrying out its HSR vision of “an integrated network of trains moving at different speeds, based on the needs of the market,” LaHood said.

“This integrated approach is exactly what rail operators have done across the globe,” he said. “Some trains are fast, other trains are faster.”

To date, the HSR stimulus funds have been used to support jobs at manufacturing plants and other rail supplier sites, and during the next six months, USDOT expects construction to begin on $1.1 billion worth of projects throughout the country, LaHood said.

“We will not be dissuaded by the naysayers and critics,” he added. “High-speed rail is in America, coming to America and expanding in America. There’s no going back.”

Following LaHood’s testimony, Mica questioned why the USDOT has not yet awarded a contract for a NEC environmental study.

“We’ve taken our cues from what you’ve told us — we’re investing in the Northeast Corridor,” LaHood responded.

The response didn’t address Mica’s question, and the committee chairman reiterated that an environmental study needs to be completed before any HSR work can begin in the NEC.

Following Mica’s question, Shuster again told LaHood he believes the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail funds should have been — and should be, in the future — awarded for projects in the NEC.

“Why isn’t there a focus? Why are you opposed to taking all this money — even from California — and focusing it in the Northeast Corridor?” Shuster asked.

LaHood’s response: “We believe in the Northeast Corridor. But we also believe in America. We believe there are other parts of the country where people would like to have trains they can ride. We’re not going to invest every dollar in one part of the country — that’s not fair.”

But if the administration is going to spend federal dollars for rail service in California, the money should be spent to improve service in the state’s most congested areas, rather than the Central Valley, Shuster said. Making improvements between Los Angeles and San Diego would be a good start, he added.

“For half of what we’re investing in the Central Valley corridor, they can have significant improvements to move people around,” he said. “Why aren’t we really focusing on those places that have tremendous needs? To my knowledge, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the roads are not backed up; people are not sitting in tremendous traffic.”

The administration awarded HSIPR funds based on the routes identified in state rail plans, LaHood said, defending the USDOT’s choice in requiring that the majority of California’s funds be spent in the Central Valley.

“The idea for these [rail] maps, these corridors — Ray LaHood didn’t make this up,” LaHood said. “These corridors came from the people who live in these states who want passenger rail. If you don’t like the idea for a rail line in California, then you need to talk to the people in California who came to me and told me where they thought there would be a good investment of money. Just like the people in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Southeast.”

Following the back-and-forth between the committee and subcommittee chairs, and LaHood, a handful of others provided testimony. Some of their comments follow.

Ken Orski,  public policy consultant:
“I do not question the merits of or need for intercity passenger rail service, nor do I question the desirability of high-speed rail … but I do question the manner in which the administration has gone about implementing its $10 billion program. The first misstep was misleadingly representing this program as ‘high-speed rail,’ thus conjuring up an image of bullet trains operating at 200 mph. In reality, the administration’s rail program will do no such thing.”

“Had the administration candidly represented the high-speed rail program as what it is — and that is an effort to introduce useful but modest enhancements to intercity Amtrak service — it would have earned some support for it.”

“The administration, I believe, has suffered a serious loss of credibility. Its pledge to bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of Americans is not taken seriously anymore.”  
“The administration’s second mistake is its failure to pursue its objective in a focused manner. Instead of identifying a corridor that would offer the best chance of successfully deploying the technology of high-speed rail and concentrating resources on that project, the administration has scattered the funds. Indeed, the program bears more resemblance at an attempt to revenue sharing than a focused effort to pioneer a new transportation technology.”

Richard Geddes, Cornell University associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management:
“I am a firm supporter of high-speed passenger rail on those corridors and routes where it makes economic sense.”

“I believe two errors were made — the issue of trying to spread taxpayer funds out over too many projects rather than using resources to focus on corridors with demonstrated demand, and not creating the institutional structure and public policies to demonstrate private investment.”

Ross Capon, National Association of Railroad Passengers President and Chief Executive Officer:
“In our view, it was essential that a substantial part of the funds in this program go to upgrading conventional services. In spite of pleas from the states for over 15 years, federal funds have generally not been available to upgrade conventional intercity passenger trains.”

“President Obama, when he launched this program, made it clear part of the funds would go to upgrading conventional service. And he also made an effort in Florida, California and, more recently, the Northeast Corridor, to do true high-speed rail.”

“Nearly 90 percent of the portfolio is invested in five key corridors. I don’t see this a revenue sharing; I see this as being concentrated on conventional lines that desperately need and have been waiting for investment.”

“The fundamental problem is the shortage of money. If 100 percent of the money went into the Northeast, people would still be looking at the price tag on getting the job done and would see a gap perhaps even bigger than the gap observed for California.”

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 12/9/2011