Good coverage of the Kerry HSR bill and Clinton’s 1992 failures

Since September, I have been following news of John Kerry’s proposed high-speed rail legislation. I covered it in some detail here, but that was when it was first announced, and details were sparse. As more information has appeared, The Transport Politic has beaten me to the punch and written up a good synopsis of the bill and some of its strengths and weaknesses. The Daily Kos linked to some of my articles right before Thanksgiving, leading to my highest traffic figures ever on this teeny tiny blog. I am pleased that there is sufficient interest on the web to drive that sort of traffic, and sincerely hope that such interest will form the foundation for sufficient support to have these plans move forward.

While I am mentioning the Transport Politic, I should point out another post they have which covers Bill Clinton’s grand high-speed rail and maglev promises from 1992, followed by his spectacular failure to do anything for rail but accept the late Amtrak President George Warrington‘s absurd claims of economic self-sufficiency at face value. For those of you who are sure Obama’s inauguration is about to herald a new day of passenger rail in America, this reminder of previous broken promises (promises made in a much more prosperous environment that today) is a worthwhile cautionary tale.

Amtrak chooses Boardman as new, temporary, CEO

Amtrak announced, almost two weeks ago, the departure of Alex Kummant as CEO. No explanations were given, and some suggested he was making way for an Obama pick, while others suggested a dispute with the Board over refinancing of Amtrak’s burdensome debt. (For Paul Weyrich’s take, read this.) In a surprising move (to me, anyway), Amtrak announced today the selection of Jospeh Boardman as their next CEO.

Joseph Boardman, 59, who has led the Federal Railroad Administration since April 2005, succeeds Alex Kummant, who resigned from the passenger carrier on Nov. 14. Boardman will serve for a year as Amtrak searches for a “permanent” chief, Chairwoman Donna McLean said today in a statement.

Read his DOT bio here. With talk of infrastructure improvements, Mica’s ill-defined plan, and Kerry’s new bill, this is a singular time to take the helm of Amtrak. I wish him clear signals.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Starting in the spring, the news has carried a series of stories about Florida Representative Mica’s ideas about the private development of high-speed rail in America. Building on those stories, please see the following from Progressive Railroading today:

Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fl.

Mica to brief high-speed rail stakeholders on RFP requirements

Today and tomorrow, U.S. Rep. John Mica R-Fla. will conduct briefings with high-speed rail stakeholders to review pending U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue a request for proposal for high-speed passenger-rail service.

Last month, President Bush signed into law legislation that enables private sector participation in the development, financing, operation and maintenance of high-speed rail service in the United States. Originally proposed as the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 H.R. 6003, the legislation — introduced earlier this year by Mica and other Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members — was included in the Rail Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 H.R. 2095/S. 1889.

The bill requires the USDOT to solicit project proposals by Dec. 15 from the private sector for the 11 federally designated high-speed rail corridors. Governors and mayors, freight and commuter railroads, labor organizations and Amtrak will evaluate the proposals for each corridor.

Briefing participants will include representatives from financial investment firms; train and railroad equipment manufacturers; federal, state and local governments; private rail operators; labor groups; and Amtrak.

I have covered this idea in several previous posts. Given Mica’s initial briefings which spoke about pursuing such an idea in the NEC, I began with some basic questions about scope and practicality here. After that, I turned to a discussion on train speed on the NEC (including Mica’s consistent lies about Amtrak’s top speeds) here. The train speed post was extended with a comparison to HSR speeds in France here. Still an unanswered question is how Mica’s efforts will mesh with those oh Sen. Kerry. For more on Kerry’s plans, see this post, Kerry’s letter to his colleagues, and this recent update.

Kerry pushes high-speed rail

From Kerry pushes high-speed rail

Senators John F. Kerry and Arlen Specter introduced a bill today to fund high-speed rail lines along the East Coast and in several other key areas of the country.

Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said the legislation would help repair the nations crumbling infrastructure, and at the same time create jobs when the country appears headed for a deep economic recession.

“At a time when our economy desperately needs a jumpstart, we need an effective national investment that puts Americans back to work,” Kerry said in a statement. “A first-rate rail system would protect our environment, save families time and money, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and help get our economy moving again.”

The bill would provide money for tax-exempt bonds to finance rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour. It would include $10 billion over 10 years to fund improvements in the Northeast and California, and $5.4 billion over a six-year period for 10 rail corridors, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities along the East Coast.

This sure appears to be a follow up to the Kerry bill discussed back in September here and here. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds.

Thoughts on tomorrow’s election

Here are some scattered thoughts I have been meaning to capture before the election, and despite this election cycle being completely endless, I realize that tomorrow is finally the day, so that I am now compelled to write this and move on.

First of all, to place this election in some context, I think it is worth turning back to the 2000 election. After a prosperous and mostly peaceful eight years under Bill Clinton, the Democratic decision to nominate Al Gore made a lot of sense. Given Gore’s subsequent celebrity associated with his global warming film, it is hard to recall just how much of a stick he was in that election. One measure of his wooden behavior back then is to recall the fact that he really did not outshine George W. Bush as an orator, and Mr. Bush may be many things but a gifted public speaker is clearly not one of them. Now I know there are many who maintain that Gore won 2000, and while I do not agree with that, it seems to me that if you were to believe that, you imagine Gore winning by a very thin margin. What amazed me then, and amazes me still, is the fact that Gore should have won that election handily, well beyond any contestable margin. Gore’s own failings as a candidate, the Clintons’ petty reluctance to support him effectively, and the Bush-Rove team all combined to derail something that seemed to me inevitable.

Fast forward four years to 2004, and ponder the Democrats’ decision to nominate John Kerry that time around. Again, Kerry has his flaws and shortcomings, but again when stacked against President Bush, it is not outlandish to see him as far more polished. Nonetheless, the Democrats’ inability to move in sync with the electorate meant that Kerry tied himself in knots while Bush connected with the parts of the country he needed to secure his reelection. Once again, despite strong circumstances favoring their victory, the Democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Fortunately for them, Mr. Bush has been hard at work on their behalf for the last four years, running up insane debt while mouthing conservative mantras and prosecuting seriously unpopular wars in the teeth of widespread public confusion and animosity to his vague and poorly explained policies. Surely, in this environment, even before this fall’s financial meltdown, even a Democratic ham sandwich should be able to beat the Republican nominee? You would sure think so, but amazingly the race between McCain and Obama has been much tighter than I ever would have imagined as it has wound down to its, in my mind, inevitable conclusion.

I am sure that Hillary and her pals dearly wish they had been able to derail Obama’s appearance at the convention four years ago, which launched his rise to national prominence. You can just feel the deep belief in Hillary’s very being that the White House was hers this cycle, and watching that sense of ordained entitlement slowly crumble under the weight of public acclaim for the cipher that is Barack Obama may well be one of the most dramatic political reversals America ever witnesses.

I have long believed that McCain made an excellent Senator. I have also always maintained strong reservations about him as a national candidate. Just as the honorable Bob Dole left the press cold and never gained any traction against Clinton, McCain’s appeal as a candidate has not translated well to the media, which has a heavy thumb on the scale of this election. While I am no fan of Palin’s selection as McCain’s vice presidential candidate (not enough national experience and far too right-wing for me), I have been shocked by the double-standards levied against her in the media. No Democratic woman would be treated as she has, and if she were, the roars of indignation that would come the press would be deafening. What the future has in store for Sarah Palin is a very interesting question.

If the Republicans lose as badly tomorrow as some of the polls suggest, the Republican party is going to need to reinvent itself if it is to reclaim a dominant role in the nation’s politics. I dream of a return to the socially liberal, politically moderate, and fiscally conservative roots that define the true Republican party in my mind, but I am not going to hold my breath on that one. Rather than seeing themselves as too right-wing, I think we will see the Republicans flirt hard with the notion that they have not been right-wing enough. I think the religious hold over the party will grow, so much so that that it will not be the tail wagging the dog, but a reversal of what part is the tail, and what part is the dog.

I see so many of my peers enamored with Barack Obama, and part of me really wishes that I could join in that sentiment. I would love to feel that enthusiastic about the future of American politics. For whatever reason, he leaves me cold. His promises to fix everything do not reassure me, his plans to handle the economy and taxation make me fearful, and the prospect of a united Democratic House, Senate, and White House strikes me as the most dangerous change of course the United States has seen in a very long time. America cannot afford such unchecked power in the hands of one party with a chip on its shoulder.

Hopefully, President Obama will prove me wrong. I truly hope he does. No matter what, it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

Text of Kerry’s HSR Letter

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.

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.