by Lance Meister
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), or the stimulus plan, as it’s more commonly known, has a substantial amount of money allocated for high speed rail (HSR). In the ARRA itself, there is a total of $8 billion dollars for potential HSR projects. In addition, President Obama has made both a symbolic and a real commitment to HSR in this country with another potential $4 billion and up to $1 billion per year over the next several years for HSR.
This is a complete reversal on the previous administration’s position to HSR. In fact, both George Bush and his brother Jeb, in their repective roles as governors of Texas and Florida, killed promising HSR proposals. As a fan of HSR, both professionally and personally, it is exciting to see HSR taking a prominent position in the national transportation discussion, and to hear President Obama talk about HSR in the same terms that Eisenhower spoke of the highway system or Kennedy spoke of the mission to the moon.
As of this week, 278 proposals were submitted for HSR projects around the country to take advantage of this money. These projects range from corridor improvements to increase speed, such as grade crossing improvements, to adding an additional track for intercity passenger service, to dedicated HSR systems, such as the proposals from California and Florida.
The total amount of these 278 proposals is $102.5 billion, just over the $8 billion allocated. While it is nice to see such interest in HSR, one has to wonder if these are real projects with pent up demand from years of underfunding and neglect, or opportunism at such a large amount of money for HSR projects. With this disparity between the amount allocated and the estimated cost of the projects, there will be some winners and losers and some tough choices to make. Currently, the California, Florida, and Midwest HSR projects appear to have the best proposals.
At the APTA rail conference in June, there was a tremendous buzz about HSR. There were wall-to-wall packed sessions (where in the past there might have been some mildly interested folks), with media coverage. Of course, we couldn’t have national infrastructure projects (think Big Dig) without colorful names. My personal favorite is the Texas HSR project, dubbed the “Texas T-bone” for its T-shaped proposed corridor.
Perhaps this is the start of something entirely new in this country. For too long, the focus of the transportation dollar and mindset has been on the car and highway. HSR and transit have been the ugly stepchildren, with hand-me-downs and castoffs of money. If nothing else, I hope that the national dialog is changing slowly, and we’ll no longer talk of “subsidizing” rail projects (when in fact all public transportation projects are “subsidized”), but look at the benefits to society and the environment that HSR can provide. It’s time to make HSR in the U.S. as important as it is in countries ranging from Japan to Spain.