Congress 2011: How will HSR, rail transit fare?

November 9, 2010

WASHINGTON — One of first transportation challenges for federal rail transportation-project advocates — Democrats and Republicans — in the new Congress in 2011 will be how to preserve and allocate seed money for rail transit and high-speed rail projects.

Billions of dollars in congressionally directed dollars for rail transit and high-speed rail projects in New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin are expected to be returned to the federal treasury by Republican governors who have cancelled — or intend to cancel — such projects in those states.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, citing serious state budget problems, already has canceled a proposed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey and New York City, which was intended to ease train congestion in the current, century-old Hudson rail tunnel. Some $3 billion in federal money for that almost $10 billion project will be returned to Washington.

Newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin (Scott Walker) and Ohio (John Kasich) have criticized federally funded high-speed rail projects proposed for their states, meaning $810 million in federal grants already sent to Wisconsin, and $400 million in federal grants already sent to Ohio, could be making a round-trip back to Washington.

But that doesn’t mean federal funding for rail transit and high-speed rail is dead. It may mean the already allocated funds for New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin — when returned to Washington — will be redirected to other rail projects in other states.

As the Economist magazine points out, the presumed new Republican chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee — Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) — is actually an advocate of “some” federally funded rail projects: projects, that, in Mica’s opinion, make economic sense. That term, of course, is one of art and not one of precision.

For example, Mica already has endorsed upgrading Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor linking Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

In fact, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman, a Republican and previously George W. Bush’s federal railroad administrator, already has outlined a plan to rebuild — at a cost of $117 billion — much of the Northeast Corridor to accommodate high-speed trains that could travel between Boston and New York in 84 minutes, and between New York and Washington, D.C., in 96 minutes. To learn more about that project, click on this link:

Mica also is supportive of high-speed rail in his own state, although he has suggested it be a less ambitious project, perhaps linking only Tampa with Orlando rather than extending south to Miami.

On Nov. 7, Amtrak’s Boardman announced an agreement with French National Railways and Bechtel Infrastructure Corp. to bid for the contract to design, build, operate, maintain and finance Florida’s planned high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. 

Mica has yet to weigh in on California’s high-speed rail ambitions, linking San Diego with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento — a $40 billion project that already has received some $2 billion in federal seed money.

A Reuters report said Mica, as T&I Committee chairman, intends to reevaluate the Obama administration’s $10 billion in high-speed rail awards.

Mica is quoted as saying, “We had unelected officials sitting behind closed doors making decisions without any hearings or without any elected officials being consulted.” Reuters also quoted Mica as saying he wants to rely less on direct federal spending for high-speed rail and more on public-private partnerships.

Said the Economist magazine, “It will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration can convince the lame-duck Democratic congress to reassign the money or whether the GOP-run House [in 2011] will try to cancel the spending entirely.”

Mica will play a crucial role in that decision making.

If you want to voice your support for the Ohio and Wisconsin high-speed rail projects, click on the following link: