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For high speed rail, manna from heaven?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, February 09, 2011

It appears that what President Dwight Eisenhower did for highways more than half a century ago, launching an interstate, limited-access network, President Barack Obama is trying to do for the passenger train. The White House yesterday proposed a six-year, $53 billion plan for extending the embryonic network of high- and higher-speed trains. For details, go here. This follows $10.5 billion already committed in 2010.
 
Like many of you, I applaud the spirit of what the president proposes. But do I have confidence much will come of it? No, although I wouldn’t mind at all being proved wrong. Here are my five concerns.
 
First, where’s the money? The newspaper Politico reported this week that Democrats are joining Republicans in the budget-cutting fiesta. Amtrak’s entire appropriation is at risk. Do I think Amtrak will be cut back to the Northeast Corridor or junked altogether this year? No, but I have to wonder whether Obama’s request to Congress for the first $8 billion of this $53 billion will go anywhere given political realities.
 
Second, where’s the vision? You can’t just announce something like this and expect the nation to march behind you. Somebody has to sell this idea. Nobody did last year when the first $10.5 billion was passed around, and look what happened. It became the punching bag of Republican office seekers, who profited from apparent public indifference to higher-speed passenger rail. So some serious beating of the tom-toms is needed to drum up support, or this will sink like a stone, becoming a one-day news story with no follow-through.
 
Third, where’s the expertise? When the high speed grants were first made a year ago, it fell to the Federal Railroad Administration to run the program. In FRA’s defense, it had no experience in this field and few if any people. A hiring frenzy ensued, and the learning curve began. I would give FRA a grade of “D” so far in getting the funded projects going. Only 40 percent of that initial $10.5 billion awarded last year has been let loose, as FRA, the states, and the Class I railroads haggle over service outcomes stretching 20 years into the future. It’s so bad that Amtrak is now doing much of the negotiating for FRA people, creating a sort of conflict of interest, inasmuch as Amtrak is a player in these grants. If the Federal Railroad Administration remains on the same trajectory of competence it now occupies, well, very little will get done.
 
Fourth, where are the partners? I’m coming around to the point of view of John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Mica champions public-private partnerships, in which corporations put up money and manpower to bring these complex projects to life. Florida is about to go down this path with its high speed line connecting Orlando to Tampa, by asking for proposals, unless its new governor pulls the plug on the whole enterprise. True high speed rail is too big to be brought about without involvement of the private sector.
 
Fifth, where are the details? Last year’s 104 grants covered every geographic nook and cranny. But the vast majority of the grants involve only consultants, to study this idea and that. Only a relative handful involved real construction, and to my knowledge, as of today, there are exactly three jobs underway, in Illinois, Maine, and Vermont. This time — this year — will significant money go to the Northeast Corridor as it did not last year? If and when the details come forth, the president’s initiative will begin to flesh out, and maybe answers to my other questions will begin to suggest themselves.
 
So yes, I’m supportive but skeptical. The first year of our new era of high speed rail was something of a bust. The players in this game must get a lot better. That, or we’re in for a big disappointment. — Fred W. Frailey


P.S.: Thanks to Alex Mayes for these photos, taken last year in Cheverly, Md. (top) and Bowie, Md. (bottom)

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