US: Many States Turning Back Rail Funding

May 24, 2011
When historians look back at the six months following the November 2010 elections, they will wonder what the Republican governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin could possibly have been thinking.

When historians look back at the six months following the November 2010 elections, they will wonder what the Republican governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin could possibly have been thinking.

Those three populous states were the beneficiaries of 45 percent of all the funding announced by the Obama administration under the 2009 American recovery act's high-speed rail program.

Barack Obama's promise - one of his more visionary ideas - was that 80 percent of Americans would have access to high-speed rail lines within 25 years. And $8 billion was soon headed out to more than 30 states as a downpayment.

The idea that newly elected governors would send the money back probably never occurred to anyone, but that is just what has happened.

On election night, Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich put the coup de grace on a new rail line to Dayton, telling reporters, "That train is dead. Passenger rail is not in Ohio's future."

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker - later to become much better known for attempting to strip collective bargaining rights from state employees - shut down a rail project to speed trains between Madison and Milwaukee on which construction had already begun. Walker declared, improbably, that hardly anyone would want to ride a train traveling substantially faster than highway speeds between the state capital and Wisconsin's largest city.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redistributed the $1.2 billion that Kasich and Walker rejected, with California getting the lion's share, $690 million, to improve the Los Angeles-San Francisco and San Francisco-Sacramento corridors.

Maine got $3.3 million to enhance the $35 million already awarded to extend Downeaster service 30 miles north from Portland to Brunswick, once a major Maine rail hub.

In February, Florida Gov. Rick Scott also decided he wanted no part of a $2.4 billion grant to create high-speed service between Orlando and Tampa, in the state's fastest growing region. Scott's official statement is so incoherent it's unquotable, but he dwells at length on the federal deficit, and asserts that "traditionally" rail projects have had cost overruns and fewer riders than projected. The Downeaster, the one new Amtrak train in decades, has consistently beaten both ridership and financial projections.

Scott also ignored $4-a-gallon gasoline, and that Florida has one of the nation's largest populations of senior citizens - the very group who would most like to leave their cars behind.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to turn down some $3.6 billion in federal funding, and the repercussions will take some time to unfold.

But Florida's loss is definitely Maine's gain. The Downeaster received another $21 million, this to be spent in Massachusetts to construct passing tracks. These tracks will enable to Downeaster to run one or two more roundtrips daily, filing in the afternoon hole in the schedule that makes same-day trips sometimes inconvenient.

This time, the big money went to the Northeast - nearly $700 million for the Amtrak corridor in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts that is critical to traveling by rail in and out of Maine. And to be fair to Republican governors, not all of them rejected money. Michigan's Rick Snyder asked for and got $200 million to improve service between Detroit and Chicago. And then there's Maine's Paul LePage, who has been uncharacteristically quiet on this subject - but is definitely not saying no.

What should we make of these events? It's certainly at the heart of the debate over public and private resources that has been raging at least since Obama's inauguration and his declared intention to use government programs to avert the depression that loomed when he took office.

Many Republicans don't believe public dollars can do any good. Congressman Dan Mica of Florida, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, endorsed Scott's decision, and did so because he believes private investment is superior. "Don't tell me that you cannot make money moving passengers by rail," he told a committee hearing."

Unfortunately for Mica, the evidence shows while that private investment can enhance passenger rail, it takes place only where public investment precedes it. In California, nominally Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, before leaving office, announced a $42 billion rail plan with $10 billion in private investment.

Transportation, in all modes, is capital intensive, with a slow return on investment. That's why, throughout the world, government builds the roads and bridges and furnishes most passenger rail service.

With global warming, shrinking fossil fuel supplies, aging populations and lengthening traffic jams, rail is poised for a revival, and the United States is the top market in the world. Not everyone sees it that way, however. Not everyone wants to.

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