Who loves high-speed rail? The $8-billion question

Thursday, February 12, 2009 - 04:13 PM

When we went to bed last night, people who track transit spending were in agreement there would be $1 to $2 billion allocated for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus bill — and a document from the conference negotiations illustrates that. When we woke up, the wires were moving a story that said high-speed rail would get $8 billion. How is it possible that high-speed rail did so well, when everything else was getting cut? The answer goes about as high as you can go...

How much funding is high-speed rail getting? I was paying attention, because Walter Magnusen from Atlanta asked us to. In fact, lots of people are paying attention to transit funding: governors, mayors, environmentalists, transportation groups. One of them unearthed a document from the House-Senate negotiations. Under a column of numbers labeled "conf proposal" there's a number, heavily blacked out, with an exclamation point beside it. To the left, with a single line through it out, is "8.0." And to the right, it says "1-2," or $1-$2 billion for high speed rail. That seemed to make sense, because the House had voted on $1.1 billion, the Senate $3.1 million. But the first official word, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, put the number at $8 billion.

Not that there's anything wrong with high-speed rail — almost every environmentalist and planner thinks it's a great idea. But it grew while transit, which also serves metro areas, got shaved from $12 billion in the House plan to $8.4 billion in the Senate's plan. And another $5.5 billion pool that could have been spent on transit got knocked down to a billion and a half.

But high-speed rail quadrupled.

How could this happen? Just about everyone key to this negotiation is for high-speed rail.

Let's start with Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who represents Nevada. According to news wires, Reid's office "issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money." This was thrilling news to Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commssion. "This fits right into what Obama has been talking about as far as infrastructure projects," Aguilera said, when reached by telephone. "It creates job, it's good for the environment."

In fact, he said, it could move as many people as 55 Boeing 747's per hour from Orange County to Clark County. And when he met with Reid personally "about two weeks ago," he said Reid was supportive but wouldn't show his cards, even though he'd helped get $45 million earmarked for the project a few years ago.

Reid's office didn't send us the statement the Associated Press said "he'd issued" on the Las Vegas-LA train. Instead, a spokesman sent the following email:

"The plan includes $8 billion for 'high-speed rail/passenger rail grants to states.' The state rail grants will be prioritized for high-speed rail projects. The Secretary will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds, however, the proposed Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail project would be eligible to receive funds, as would the Northeast corridor. This was a major priority for President Obama and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it."

Let's also remember that from Reid's perspective, Obama owed him one. At his news conference on Monday night, the president raised the specter of corporate junkets to Las Vegas, which got a blowback from Las Vegas officials. Reid himself felt the need to set the record straight. "I have spoken with President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, about the president's remarks," Reid said earlier this week on the Senate floor. "He made it clear to me that the president's criticism was aimed at the potential use of taxpayer funds for junkets, and in no way reflects his thoughts about any one particular city."

Emanuel, as it turns out, is also a big proponent of high-speed rail, and waxes enthusiastic about it in his book "The Plan." So, it turns out, is the president, who spoke of it with characteristic passion during the crucial Indiana primary last year, just as gas prices were going through the roof: "The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service," he said in Beech Grove just before the May 5 Indiana primary. "One of the things I have been talking bout for awhile is high-speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities; Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis." As Senator Reid said, "a major priority for President Obama."

There's one other key person who cares about high-speed rail, someone who's crucial to all these negotiations: Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., through which the Northeast corridor train line runs. "He's a fan," confirmed spokeswoman Kate Kelly. Indeed, Specter introduced a bill with Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., last year that would fund high speed rail. To the tune of $8 billion.

So far, though, Walter, there are no plans, so far as I can tell, for a high-speed train to Atlanta.

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Comments [8]


Looks like the Orange County to Clark County line got cut. Harry Reid failed on that one.

It looks good to me here in Birmingham's Gulf Coast Coridoor High Speed Train. Oh I long for the day's where I don't have to sit in traffic driving to Atlanta. I'm a fan for my own selfish reasons and nothing else.

Apr. 18 2009 08:55 PM


Um, there ARE plans for high-speed rail to Atlanta.

Feb. 18 2009 11:30 PM
Ron Jordan

The New 2nd generation superconducting Maglev is cheaper, better, faster, and will not cost taxpayers huge amounts of money. California's earthquakes will destroy High Speed Rail which at best is only an intermediate step to Maglev. We should not be spendind dollars on intermediate steps, but should initiate the best and most innovative new industry in America since the airplane.

Feb. 18 2009 08:19 PM
Mark Brown

I think the Absolute best thing we could do for high speed rail and Green-ness in our country is:

a) make Every Eisenhower Highway
Green with Heavy (and also Light or highspeed rail) rail lines down the CENTER lanes... These will offload TRUCKS from going from exit 1 to exit (100?)
and make them all more efficient.
See here:

and 2nd: making the DETROIT 3 FROM automobile companies INTO transportatiion companies... (on 11/10/08 I said: http://sos-newdeal.blogspot.com/2008/11/next-prediction-save-car-companies.html

make GM pay and replace the STREETcar system it destroyed in the 1930's to 1950's.

We need to NATIONALIZE the car companies and make them into TRANSPORT companies.

Feb. 17 2009 09:34 AM
John Thacker

"So far, though, Walter, there are no plans, so far as I can tell, for a high-speed train to Atlanta."

Actually, there was a recent feasibility study for that. The project is the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. The first part of the project would be DC-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte. Then they'd go Charlotte-Greenville-Atlanta(-spur to Macon).


Of course, all of these high speed rail projects, however admirable, are going to take years for the Environmental Impact Studies to be completed. There's no way anything will really happen until at least 4 or 5 years from now. That's what the NEPA requires. (The Senate voted down an amendment from Sen. Barasso that would've shortened the NEPA review process for stimulus money receiving projects.) So this isn't really a short-term stimulus.

Feb. 13 2009 05:02 PM

I think a vegas arm is the most likely unstated expansion for the cali high speed rail, but it should be integrated within the system probably with a branch out at the palmdale stop.

Feb. 13 2009 01:47 PM
Brian C. Brooks

I disagree with the simple statement that Maglev costs much more than high speed rail and is not that much faster. Simply making such misleading statements without any basis shows bias. I have seen estimates and actual costs of low speed Light Rail systems that are 50% higher than maglev estimates. The estimated cost of the Claifornia High-Speed rail as I recall is much higher than the actual cost of the Shangai Maglev. The actual numbers should be published, not biased opinions.

The speed is actually twice as fast in operation. The test speed races in France required the rails to be restored between EACH speed run. Maglev goes 267 mph in every run.

Finally, the elevated Maglev will never hit a train, car, truck, animal, or innocent pedestrian. It will never divert floodwaters or be flooded itself. It will not divide towns and cities like the great wall of China. If it is also cheaper it should be fairly considered.

Feb. 13 2009 12:07 PM
James Fujita

The thing that bugs me about all this is Reid's MagLev fixation.

California is building a high-speed rail network, and a private company is even looking into a high-speed rail project of its own between Las Vegas and Southern California. MagLev is much more expensive than TGV-style high-speed rail, mile-per-mile. And the speed difference is honestly not that great.

Reid's MagLev to Vegas would also be completely incompatible with the HSR planned for L.A. to San Francisco. There is a huge missed opportunity here to create an interstate high-speed rail project, with branches to both the Bay Area and SoCal.

Feb. 12 2009 06:46 PM

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