Fred Frailey Blog


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"Do not be dissuaded by a few detractors," Ray LaHood, the soon-to-be former secretary of transportation, told the U.S. High Speed Rail Association this week. LaHood spoke after learning that Florida Republican congressman John Mica will again try to privitize the Northeast Corridor. But the fact is, high-speed rail is dead in the water in the U.S., aside from Amtrak's NEC and the California bullet train. And the people I blame the most are not the John Micas of this world but the so-called friends of high-speed rail, namely Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Ray LaHood. They have it within their power to at least try to break the political inertia and choose not to.

Did you listen to the president's State of the Union address? I did, anxious to hear him at least give lip service to the notion of a second round of federal HSR funding, following the $10.5 billion in grants awarded to states in 2010. Here is the totality of his reference to high-speed rail: "Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet, high-tech schools and self-healing power grids."

In 2009, with Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, it was easy to plant the seeds for at least higher-speed passenger rail. That's when we saw that first $10.5 billion passed out, as part of the stimulous package aimed at ending the Great Recession. In 2011, with the economy recovering and Republicans back in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, getting more HSR funds appropriated was no longer easy. It would require some work and commitment on the part of the Obama administration. And what did Obama and his people do? Essentially nothing, other than occasional lip service. And now even lip service seems to be lacking.

If the president really wants to work toward a high (or higher) speed rail network, he'll have to invest a little time and political capital. I may support the idea, but the public does not yet do so, at least in numbers large enough to move some Republicans to reconsider their opposition. I'd like to see Obama ride the Acela to New York, Biden a 110-mph Chicago-Detroit train, and the successor to LaHood the Capitol Limited overnight. While Obama is in California raising money in Hollywood, he might make a speech about the benefits that state already reaps from its investment in passenger rail and endorse the bullet train.

But the president and his people have done none of these things, and I assume they never will. Hence, the corridor between Chicago and St. Louis will languish, half-completed, Amtrak will finance improvement in the Northeast Corridor through ad hoc appropriations secured by friendly legislators, and whatever gets accomplished will be through state governments.

Ceding leadership on development of a passenger rail network to the states is not an entirely bad idea, incidently. LaHood's Federal Rail Administration made a hash out of passing out the first $10.5 billion. FRA tried (with some success) to make host railroads agree to repay the grants if specified improvements in frequencies, speeds, and on-time performance are not maintained. It took literally years for a couple of the freight railroads to get on board and make those commitments, and I doubt that any Class I railroad is willing to do so again.

But look what happens when states deal with railroads in good faith to expand passenger rail. It took six months for Virginia and Norfolk Southern to start a new service between Washington, D.C., and Lynchburg. A more ambitious plan, to run three round trips between DC and Norfolk, began after 24 months and $114 million in state money for infrastructure additions to the NS line (adding the other two round trips will require the blessing of CSX, the other host railroad for this route). Compare those times to the federally funded route additions permitted by that $10.5 billion stimulous appropriation, all taking years longer to implement. Examples: 84 months and $127 million per train slot to add two round trips between Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.; also 84 months and $181 million per slot to add two round trips between Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and 60 months and $62 million per train slot to add two round trips between Chicago and the Quad Cities.

What I'm trying to say is that even if President Obama succeeds in prying another $10.5 billion out of Congress for high-speed rail, I doubt that CSX, NS, or Union Pacific would be interested in going through the FRA negotiating meatgrinder again and accept being the guarantor of specific results. Frankly, there's very little in it for the railroads, because the government wants to reserve for itself the capacity it adds. So here we are, at stalemate. - Fred W. Frailey

  • First mistake is believing anything obama says other than pushing his socialist agenda.  All he has is a B/S mouth that plays well on television.  You can go through so many things he has said in his presidency and easily prove he is either lying or doesn't have any idea of what he is talking about.  Want proof?  Remember his promises about obamacare and being affordable?  It is has been shot to heck with facts of its costs and every day those costs go up by alarming amounts..

    High speed rail is just like any other public funded transportation.  It never gets off the dole.  NE Corridor has been stated to cover its costs, only not fully allocated costs.  This country is broke and that will truly come home to roost when interest goes up and the federal deficit gets out of control if it is not already. So, the country can not afford to start these systems since they will have to be paid for every year of their lives. And, there is no such thing as govenment money.  They have to take from you and me to have anything and then give back only a small percentage of what they take.  It takes them years to do what state and local governments do pretty fast.

    We are going to have to stop judging efectiveness of Congressman by seeing how much they "bring home" from the government. These are very good reasons for high speed to be D.O.E.

  • Excuse me.  D.O.A.

  • Great Post! HSR is in real trouble unless states pick up and run with it! If states want better intercity rail, be it 200-mph in California or 110-mph here in New York State, they are going to have to fund it themselves.

    I have little hope of getting more money from the Feds, and honestly I think that if a state’s citizens feel that passenger rail is important enough, they should be willing to pay for it, I think through a dedicated funding source.

    Last November I wrote a letter to my local paper, the Albany Times Union calling just for that, taking the example of the little voter approved sales taxes around the country that have funded pretty impressive rail transit projects, like in Denver, Phoenix, or Salt Lake City (ironically in western “red states”); to call for a half-penny tax to fund our NYS Barge Canal, Intercity Rail, and our state highway and transit trust funds.

    Letter: Let sales tax fund transit, highways… Published: November 26, 2012

    Letter: Public transit the right solution… Published: December 11, 2012

  • Mr. Stamey is a bit intemperate in his comments on HSR and the President's support or lack of support for it.  It's called "politics," Tom.  In case you were hiding in a cave, Obama's predecessor (the "shrub") took this country into a war with no plant pay so much as a penny of its cost - and he kept his commitment on that.  We haven't paid for that war.  My point is all presidents say what they think will help them accomplish their goals.  Had the Democrats retrained control of the House after 2010, don't you think our government would behave differently?  As it is, we have paralysis, or dysfunction, choose the word of your choice.  The country is not broke.  It is in the hands of politicians who absolutely will not consider paying enough in taxes to achieve any of the goals that a majority of Americans might want.  I'll make a small wager with you, Tolm.  When it comes to funding the highway program, you will not hear any right-wing Republicans prattling about government waste.  You might even find them rushing to allow 97,000 lb. truck gross vehicle weights, up from today's 80,000 lb. limit.  They'll rationalize that adding a sixth axle will minimize pavement damage and will allow truckers to compete with those money-sucking railroads.  There are no angels in this process.  The first objective of every politician is to get reelected.  If, in theprocess, they manage to do something good, well, accidents happen.,

  • There is a growing debate on how to pay for transportation, streets and highways of course have never paid for themselves out of user fees, but there has always been the idea that on the federal level at least since the 1950s our fuel taxes going into a Highway Trust Fund that paid for the interstates and other major highway projects.

    But the inability to raise gas taxes in order to adjust for inflation and more efficient cars has created a shortfall at both the state and federal levels, and now some GOP governors want to replace the fuel taxes with sales taxes. Now I of course don’t think having a sales tax, be it regional or state wide, to supplement transport funding, be it rail or road, is a bad idea… but should fuel taxes be abolished entirely?

    Conservative think tanks like Heritage, Reason, and CATO are actually horrified, because people like Randal O’Toole have for so long (falsely) claimed that unlike Amtrak or the NYC Subway, roads pay entirely for themselves out of user fees. If GOP governors and state legislatures replace the fuel taxes with sales taxes, then the contention that highways are fully paid for by drivers would be obviously false.  

    NYT: Governments Look for New Ways to Pay for Roads and Bridges… Feb 14, 2013

    Recently in New York State there was a big controversy over a proposal by the NYS Thruway Authority to raise truck tolls by 45%, which was called devastating by the trucking industry and Upstate politicians.

    The solution that Governor Cuomo offered was to relieve the NYS Thruway the cost of the patrols conducted by the state police on the thruway, so instead of tolls from the users paying for public safety, it will now be coming from the general fund at a time we are told we must cut back on state programs because of annual budget deficits.

    It is often stated by many people that we pay much too much in gas taxes, tolls, and DMV fees; but compared to overseas we pay considerably less for our highways. Even in “socialist” France their “autoroutes” are toll roads granted as concessions to mixed-economy corporations, not “freeways” as in most of the USA.

    Tolls on Japanese super highways (now operated by private corporations) are very high, with the 202.3 miles (325.5-km) journey from Tokyo to Nagoya on the Tōmei Expressway costing $85.07 (¥7100) in tolls for an ordinary car.

    For comparison the 202.9 mile trip from Albany to Rochester on the NYS Thruway costs only $9.55 for the standard 4 wheel passenger vehicle and $75.90 for an 18-wheel semi-truck. The 45% toll increase would have brought this up to $110.06 for the 18-wheeler.

    The high cost of driving (gas costs $7.40 per gal in Japan) is one reason why passenger rail is so successful overseas, although even in Japan automobiles still dominates local travel and trucks command 54% of the freight market, with ships moving 40%, and rail just 2%.

    Libertarian think tanks like CATO advocate that we build more toll roads, add tolls to existing roads, and privatizing as much our highway system as possible… which of course drive the cost of driving long distances in America to that of overseas countries like Japan, where passenger rail commands a far large share of long distance travel.

    Of course many of these same people also predict in the future that we won’t actually own our own cars, but rent them by the hour from private car sharing services. Both cars and highways will become “smart”, traffic congestion will be eliminated forever, as everyone drives bumper to bumper at 100-mph!

    The “robo-cars” of course will drive themselves leaving you plenty of time to respond to blog posts! That’s why we don’t need passenger trains… at least according to conservative libertarian think tanks.

  • For anyone who has been around long enough to witness or play a part in any of the four previous iterations of Fast Train Fever this is not a surprise. After enough time has passed a new "generation" will discover fast trains and think they have stumbled upon something new. There will be strong words, fancy meetings, meaningless polls, sexy renditions of new rolling stock... and then they come back to where we are now with the rest of us saying "been there, done that."

    And, no, nothing will happen in California. The next economic contraction will see to that.

  • In New York State we have also a stalemate; our DOT and CSX have yet to sign a service agreement for proposed improvements to the Chicago Line from Schenectady (Hoffmans) to Buffalo. NYSDOT is also still working on the Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement.

    The disagreement is on future top speeds, the state wants 110-mph on a new “third track”, which is fine with CSX so as long as it’s located 30ft from the track center of the existing northward mainline track… in other words off the existing right-of-way of the formerly New York Central four track mainline.

    CSX has indicated that it is open to three mainline tracks at 90-mph, but not 110-mph. This is a sensible position, but unfortunately the politicians promised 110-mph to the people… and they don’t seem willing to back down as of yet. The difference between three tracks at 90-mph and 110-mph is 15 minutes; 90-mph would still cut a whole hour off the current schedule, from 5½ to 4½ hours.

    The big improvement in travel time of course comes not from the higher speeds but from not stopping, the third track would allow passenger trains to overtake freights and pass opposing trains without having to sit on a siding. Three tracks at 79-mph would be about 4hr 45min.

    The real opportunity for high-speed rail is of course south of Albany-Rensselaer on the Hudson Line, where passenger trains dominate… and now is controlled New York to Poughkeepsie by MetroNorth, and Poughkeepsie to Schenectady (Hoffmans) by Amtrak.

    In the mid-1980s the SNCF for NYSDOT conducted a series of test runs with the Turboliners, and compiled a report listing all that was needed to increase speeds to 125-mph and cut travel times to 1hr 50min, all within the existing right-of-way. Sadly that was just when the state stop investing in rail, after cutting travel times to 2hr 15min from 3hr and doubling ridership to a million riders after a big investment in the late 1970s.

    Why the state has focus so much on Albany-Buffalo instead of Albany-NYC is a bit of a mystery to me… if we want “true high-speed” the opportunity is to the south, and reducing travel times here will affect all trains in Upstate NY; the Empire Service, Adirondack, and Ethan Allen. The busiest city-pairs are always New York City to any place else, so reducing travel times here will have the greatest impact on ridership.

    This seems all clear to me the novice, why not to the politicians and NYSDOT?

  • guys, let me point to the example of the Cascade system in the Pacific Northwest.  It has been a gradually growing system since the outset.  At the beginning it was probably not what many wanted, may still not be, but it is getting closer all the time.  As improvements have been made, ridership has increased, the supporting states have seen the need and further improvements and funding have been forthcoming.

     I think what the current administration's idea was, "let's spread a lot of money around and get the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people as fast as possible."  Did it build a true high speed rail system anywhere?  No, did it put a lot of people to work?  Yes!  What is the cornerstone of the Democratic agenda?  Let's put Joe six-pack to work and he will vote for us!  Will the incremental improvements lead to more improvements?  I believe so, so long as funds were spent where there is a genuine need for the product.

     Ohio and Florida backed out.  I really think Ohio was the greater loser (disclosure, it's my original home state)  but it was soundly voted down because it would not bring an immediate high speed system, "small moves, Sparks, small moves".  Florida is coming up with alternative plans, I for one am really suprised there is not more collective excitement on these boards about FEC starting the first private railroad operated service since 1971.  Ohio, sadly is doing nothing.

  • None of this is terribly surprising and there's plenty of blame to spread around.

    Amtrak deserves a chunk.  They should have been the leaders on HSR.  Instead they've been mostly irrelevant.  At best, they've help facilitate state expansion efforts in NC, Washington and California, etc, but they have shown almost zero initiative on their own.  Want an example?  Florida has become the fourth largest state since Amtrak's inception.  What initiatives has Amtrak undertaken to provide intra-state transportation to Floridians?  None. (Want more?  Just ask.) They only react when prodded (PRIIA is the latest example)

    The FRA deserve a chunk.  Mostly by getting in the way of progress.  Their "standards" have prevented the US from buying off-the-shelf equipment from elsewhere in the world.  It's taken nearly two decades to get Amtrak's Michigan ITCS system to 110 mph speed.  And then there's the heavy-handed negotiation process Fred mentioned.  We've wasted fuel, opportunity, and time.

    Congress deserves a chunk for beating Amtrak into the inert blob they are today.

    Every Administration from 1971 deserves a chunk, too, for failure to lead.  A few lines in a speech by Clinton and a thin layer of pork by Obama are not leadership.

    The frt RRs deserve a little.  For the most part, they've just watched the Amtrak circus from the bleachers.  But, from time to time, when the act seemed to get more dangerous than silly, they've overreacted.

  • bjturon is substantially correct in his comments on this blog thread.  But, as usually is the case, the public policy issues rarely are black and white, and mostly are gray.  For example, many motorists never ride on a highway that is funded by fuel and excise taxes or tolls.  But they still pay the same tax per gallon even though they get no benefit whatsoever.  City streets rarely, if ever, are funded by the various highway funding mechanisms.  They tend to be paid for out of local government budgets.  So, eliminating gas tax and replacing it with a vehicle-mile (VMT) or ton-mile (TMT) tax just might be a more fair system.  That truckers scream bloody murder at the suggestion sort of tells you who is getting the nearly free ride today and is trying to keep the current system.  

  • Mr. Turon:  You are not the first to suggest that higher speed rail should have a dedicated funding source, so I'll not pick n you, just your idea.  Jus how should such a dedicated funding source be structured?  Rail passenger service - including commuter in metro areas - does not now cover its fully allocated cost.  An effort to raise fares to cover all costs and provide funding for expansion would be counter-productive because it most likely would drive many passengers back to riding on asphalt.  We now are funding a lot of transit from the pittance that is allocated from the fuel tax/highway trust fund mechanism.  That is a dedicated funding source, but it doesn't pay for a lot of rail and those who pay the largest share feel they are being taxed unfairly.  I might argue with them that taking a lot of motorists off urban highways is good for the remaining motorists because it relieves congestion.  The problem, to wrap this comment up, is that there is no funding excess so any dedicated funding source would have to disadvantage a new group.  The essence of any decent taxation system is relative fairness.

  • bjturon:  You refer to "conservative think tanks."  I cannot resist oberving that you have used an inconsistency in terms.  "Conservative" and "think tanks" do not go together in the same sentence.

  • quetem 1: Re: Ohio and Florida and their ill-fated high speed rail ventures.  The decisions of the two states' governors were based more on ideology than anything else.  The best that can be said about ideology is that it enables the ideologue to not think very much - if at all.  Hey, the people of Ohio and Florida elected those bozos; we just get to watch the wreck happen.

  • oltmannd:  I agree with your thesis that there's plenty of blame to go around, but with one exception.  You cudgel Amtrak for not having taken a leadership position.  Later, you condemn Congress for beating down Amtrak.  So which is it?  Is Amtrak a victim or a perp?  In criminal law, students learn how to "make the victim the perp."  Amtrak never has had a funding source of its own and from its first day in operation it has been a ward of the federal government, and now of a number of states, too.  Clearly, it's more a victim than a perp.

  • Pundit -

    It's both!  Sometimes, Congress was just Amtrak's enabler.  After 40 years, it's hard to tell how much was imposed and how much is self-inflicted.  The way Amtrak is now just seems "normal".  They are lost somewhere between dead and alive.

    Either way, the way forward is thru Amtrak.  Amtrak needs to be fixed.