New high-speed rail bill from John Kerry?

BSen. John F. Kerry, Mass.-Dack in July, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry spoke a bit about the need to improve the average speed at which the Acela travels the Northeast Corridor. (For more discussion about top speed vs. average speed, please see this post.) In a conversation with the Boston Globe (story now archived, snippets here), that paper reported the following:

Kerry plans to file in two weeks a $1 billion bill that will target out-of-date bridges, tunnels and tracks that prevent the train from hitting its 150-mile-per-hour maximum and getting commuters to their destinations faster.

Given the fact that the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission concluded in December that America needed to invest $353 billion, at a rate of $8 billion per year, to bring our passenger rail infrastructure up to snuff, Kerry’s $1 billion figure was so laughably small that I did not bother to write about it at the time.

Today brings news that Sen. Kerry may now be thinking on a larger scale. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has an interview with Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson (R.) about his planned support for a the “High Speed Rail for America Act… [a] major rail initiative… to finance an interstate high-speed rail network that could serve as the spine for local transit lines.” A letter from Kerry states: “$200 million per year in grants, $8 billion in tax-exempt bonds, $10 billion in tax-credit bonds for high-speed intercity rail facilities, and $5.4 billion in tax-credit bonds for rail infrastructure.”

How would this work? In Sen. Isakson’s own words:

I Sen. Johnny Isaksonhave been very interested in the possibility of a high-speed rail line from Birmingham to Washington [through Atlanta]… the big deal with rail is being able to get the capital together at the beginning to put in the infrastructure to put in lines like [the NEC]. Sen. Kerry’s bill focuses on raising capital. … I support creating the financing mechanism to reinvigorate rail in the United States of America. … I think that all transportation ought to be a function based on user fees. … Sometimes you have to make the investment in the hub… to then make the rest of the system viable. … This is the very beginning of a long process.

It is perfectly appropriate that Sen. Isakson sees the benefits in local terms – Georgians are his constituents after all. I think it’s telling how he keeps referencing Birmingham and the NEC, as transportation networks are only as valuable as the nodes to which they connect. He points repeatedly to the NEC, which was built with private capital originally, but that occurred in a completely different era in terms of tax burden and regulatory cost. The modern history of American HSR is silent testimony to the fact that private capital seeks endeavors with far more reliable returns than passenger trains, and if America wished to see its passenger rail system develop, it will need to catalyse that growth with some form of government funding or stimulus. Isakson refers to user fees being the only appropriate way to fund transportation, and I assume there he is distinguishing between operating funds and capital support. The latent accountant within me could easily diverge on a tangent about how the highways and the airlines receive substantial indirect operating support from local, state, and the Federal governments, but I understand the ideal Sen. Isakson desires, even if it is elusive in practice.

If Sen. Kerry does introduce such a bill, and his office’s response to the AJC was no comment, it seems it will focus on the development of public high speed rail corridors with the goal of relying on private operators for the actual train service. This begs several questions:

  1. Would these be new, dedicated rights of way, would they run parallel to existing freight trackage but operate independently, or would they bootstrap off of the existing freight network? Truly independent operations offer tremendous appeal in terms of safety and operational flexibility, but the associated cost soars compared to shared facilities. Shared facilities would need to contend with substantial safety ramifications, driven home this past week in the Metrolink crash in California. Freight operators will not be eager to share their private assets without a great deal of compensation for the subsequent costs of improved cab signals and positive train control that would surely be necessary. Similarly, the freights’ ability to delay Amtrak’s own trains have been an enduring source of agony for that railroad’s long-distance passengers. (To the tune of $137 million per year in cost to to Amtrak.) The freights are all too willing to contribute generously to politicians in exchange for not being required to honor their obligations regarding Amtrak access and priority. I think the difficulties with shared facilities will lead towards dedicated rights of way, but real estate and environmental issues will make that very hard, too. (See this post for a discussion of related issues in the NEC.)
  2. What part of the government would be responsible for the corridors? The Federal Railroad Administration? A government-owned private corporation, a la Amtrak? Regional associations of states, like port authorities? Amtrak itself? I doubt very much it will be Amtrak for several reasons – Amtrak is a perennial target of Republican abuse, and one sure way to ensure no bipartisan support of a bill like this would be to hitch it to Amtrak’s wagon. If it came to pass, the other private operators would want a neutral party as the overseer, I am sure, rather than Amtrak, which would, presumably, be seen by them as a competitor. I cannot see the FRA taking on this duty, as it too would spook the Republican fear of open-ended government expansion. I think you’d be most likely to see multi-state entities, like port authorities, emerge to take on the management of the corridors (akin to this suggestion I made previously). You might also see state management, akin to the interstate highway system, but it would be hard to imagine states developing the expertise to build and maintain modern high-speed rail on their own.
  3. How will this relate to Amtrak? Will Amtrak continue to plod along freight tracks as the Chevy to this new Cadillac? Would a new entity that owns the new HSR lines absorb ownership of Amtrak’s fixed infrastructure, evolving Amtrak and its fleet into one of the new operators? Would Amtrak run this whole new creation itself? I doubt that last one very much, but there will need to be some central integrating agent to ensure that operations mesh cleanly. Ideally this would extend between not only the HSR operations and the conventional Amtrak operations, but also to the regional rail operations throughout the country. I am not going to hold my breath on that last point.
  4. Will the network Kerry envisions build on the proposed American HSR network that grew out of the 1993 High Speed Rail Development Act? (Isn’t it great how that legislation has done so much over the last fifteen years?) The following map is from the FRA and dates to 2001 (A much larger version can be found on Wikipedia here.) See also here.
    2001 FRA-designated HSR corridors
    2001 FRA-designated HSR corridors

    It should not surprise you that the FRA web site itself offers no readily apparent information on their goals for American HSR.

  5. Finally, and briefly, how does this idea fit with Florida Representative Mica’s vague plans for a new rail line in the NEC? Was that a camel’s nose under the tent for this larger plan? I doubt it, but the politics of high gas prices makes for some strange bedfellows. Either way, would a plan like this receive any support from either of the presidential candidates? Obama – yes. McCain – no. Curiously, given the fact that high-speed trains are nearly always electric, they would be a perfect fit with the expanded network of nuclear power plants McCain has proposed.
Whenever a politician speaks up about the importance of improving the transportation options available to Americans, I am quick to listen and hopeful they will succeed in advancing their ideas, but the modern history of passenger rail in America does not make me very sanguine. I look forward to watching this develop.

Via Trains for America.


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