A week ago, when I posted my thoughts on a high-speed rial plan suggested by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (as reported in an Atlanta Journal Constitution interview with Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson), I hoped to see the text of Sen. Kerry’s proposal letter to his colleagues. Very kindly, Logan Nash over at Trains4America obtained that very document and posted it here. Rather than copy it, I will encourage you to read it over there.
It is an interesting read for several reasons. More than anything, I am struck how it scrupulously avoids any use of the dreaded word Amtrak. When discussing the current upsurge in rail ridership, it makes no mention of Amtrak at all, but does cite APTA’s very healthy 10% increase. I understand why Kerry would place his proposal in this context and phrase it in these terms – Amtrak is a third-rail to quite a few politicians – but I still find it amusing. Moving on from that minor observation, I have the same reaction as Nash does in his comments – the language here suggests to me a new-build, dedicated right-of-way network, and yet I think the dollar amounts Kerry puts forward are insufficient to make meaningful progress in that direction. Please see my previous post for more discussion about the unfunded needs facing American passenger rail, but they are a lot. (Not as much as, say, a taxpayer-funded bailout of Wall Street, but a lot.)
Kerry also directly addresses his intention of creating a high-speed rail office within the Federal Railroad Administration, which addresses the questions I raised in my second point in my previous post. I think the FRA is a fine home for such an office in an Obama Administration, but in a McCain Administration such an office would be a backwater in a bog. Kerry knows this, and I think his choice of placing it in the FRA is an indication of how he sees the likely outcome of the upcoming election.
Having said that, I will mention that the looming prospect of a Wall Street bailout changes the ballgame of how the next administration will be able to approach its goals. I think this plan will resemble nothing so much as shackles for the next president, greatly reducing his ability to pursue any sort of policy agenda beyond trimming the budget and increasing government revenue in whatever ways he feels are appropriate and politically acceptable. In short, I think that any sort of top-bottom transportation or energy policy overhaul will be a non-starter, and that the government will be compelled to use various incentives to encourage those behaviors to occur with private funding. Or we could continue to spend more than we collect and rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic as the Federal budget runs further amok.