Friday, June 17, 2011

Has Politics Killed High-Speed Rail in the U.S.?


COMMENTARY | Imagine a trip by train between Boston and Washington in three hours. Or a faster one from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in which you're meeting with colleagues instead of sitting in a cramped airplane seat, spilling coffee on your laptop?

That's the vision of high-speed rail proponents, who see it as the future of mass transportation and one solution to unemployment and environmental problems.

Several new HSR systems have been proposed across the United States and are in various stages of development. For example, there is the Northeast Corridor project, serving major East Coast cities; and the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, linking St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit.

But bipartisan political bickering seems to be throwing new roadblocks at HSR. Because of the concerns and uncertainties being raised by both those supporting and opposing HSR, it may be questionable whether sufficient funding for all systems can be secured.

Severe economic troubles confront the nation and as a result, HSR projects that had already been approved have either been canceled or face severe funding challenges. Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott refused to accept federal funds for his state's proposal, essentially killing the project. Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin also refused federal funds but then changed his mind and tried to get the funds that Florida rejected. Virginia's Gov. Robert McDonnell refused to even apply for federal funds.

Although there was a rush from others to secure the money given up by those states, even projects that have strong local support face political opposition that may prevent those visions from being realized. As an example, take California's proposed 800-mile HSR project, in which electric powered trains will whisk passengers at speeds of up to 220 mph across the state.

Originally approved by California's voters in 2008, the project was seen as a way to address future transportation needs, reduce air emissions, and to provide hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The latter is very important to the hard hit Central Valley, where unemployment has hovered around 15 percent for the last three years.

The project enjoyed bipartisan support not only from Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, but also from powerful Republicans like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who represents a District (Bakersfield) desperate for economic good news.

But McCarthy has changed his mind about HSR and voiced his opposition numerous times. He has joined with others (H.R. 6403) to try to rescind federal funding for the project and to divert already approved funds to highway projects.

The opposition appears bipartisan as well, not merely the typical posturing between Republicans and Democrats. State Senator Alan Lowenthal, D- Long Beach, who lists himself as an HSR supporter, has raised several objections, most notably the decision to begin rail construction between Fresno and Bakersfield instead of, say, Long Beach, where ridership would presumably be impacted much sooner.

A scathing report released by California's Legislative Analyst's Office not only questioned the initial construction site, but also blasted the California High-Speed Rail Authority as being incompetent and mismanaging the project. The LAO called for the entire project to be transferred to the state Department of Transportation and that federal funding contracts be renegotiated to allow for further study, despite rapidly approaching construction deadlines in those contracts.

The CHSRA and other supporters have fought back, particularly targeting the LAO report as inaccurate. However, all of this political noise and uncertainty leads one to wonder if the project will ever get built. Will potential private sector investors back away from the project, fearful that the political will to complete it no longer exists? Will a disgruntled populace, angered at its tax money being wasted by politicians in other areas, give up its initial support for HSR?

Only time will tell, but as federal construction deadlines get closer and closer, does sufficient "time" exist for HSR to succeed?

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