Thursday, November 04, 2010

High-speed rail plans still on track?

What do Tuesday's election results mean for passenger rail in North Carolina? The apparent Republican heir to the chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Miami, says he wants to re-examine President Obama's almost $10 billion in high-speed rail grants. He doesn't oppose high-speed rail, he told the AP, but disagrees with some of the states that won grants. Hmmm. In January Florida snagged $1.25 billion for a Tampa-to-Orlando (and eventually to Miami) line. But Mica thinks the Northeast is the only corridor that can support high-speed rail.

North Carolina won a $545 million federal grant. It was part of the stimulus package for "high-speed rail" projects, although in North Carolina's case, don't be imagining bullet trains. The state plans to use most of its half billion to upgrade the Raleigh-to-Charlotte route. It projects top speeds of 90 mph, eventually reducing the average Raleigh-Charlotte trip nearly an hour from the current 3 hours 10 minutes.

I checked in with Patrick Simmons who heads the rail division of the N.C. Department of Transportation. What does he foresee for North Carolina's high-speed passenger rail project with Republicans in charge of the U.S. House, not to mention both houses of the N.C. legislature?

Simmons said he expects additional scrutiny and questions, but that the funding the state has received is secure. The state is very close to signing an agreement with the feds, he said. "Short-term, I feel good," he said. Long-term? He expects the whole U.S. passenger rail program to be questioned at a national level.

A savvy observer might find reason for concern. After all: The Wisconsin DOT on Thursday told contractors to stop work on that state's Milwaukee-to-Madison high-speed rail line, which had won $810 million in federal money. Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker has promised to cancel the project, although shortly before the election the current governor's administration and federal administrators signed an agreement to commit the state to spending all $810 million of federal stimulus money.

And in Ohio, the Republican governor-to-be, John Kasich, who defeated incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland, opposes to plans for faster train passenger service there - the 3Cs line connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. The Obama administration gave that project over $400 million this year.

What might it mean for North Carolina's passenger rail, I asked Simmons, that the legislature will be dominated by Republicans? He reminded me that the whole idea for the NCDOT's role in passenger rail came during the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Martin.

Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic has a good national analysis. The map is cool, too.


Anonymous said...

Ms. Newsom,

Can you please explain why you constantly use the word "win" regarding transit money from the federal government?

The federal government receives money in only one of three ways:

1. It taxes the citizens. Yes, some of that money comes from NC citizens, but most of it comes from other states. What right does NC have to the tax money from the people of Montana or Ohio?

2. It borrows it, adding to a $13 trillion national debt to be passed on to future generations. What right do you have to, in effect, steal money from your neighbor's children?

3. It creates it out of nothing, as the Federal Reserve did yesterday via so-called "Quantitative Easing". In response to QE, commodity prices like corn, wheat, rice and oil immediately jumped, which will lead to higher food and energy prices. How can this be considered "winning"?

These are serious questions, and you need to answer them.

Anonymous said...

To be polite, there are those that don't wish to use tax money to invest in this country. The US is falling behind other economies in the world in various ways. If the US doesn't get started on green energies, infrastructure (including high speed rail), and new technologies, we will fall behind economically to Indo-Asia, which is progressing forward as we sit still.

Anonymous said...

The first question's premise is flawed: Federal money goes to federal projects - it's the federal government's right to give federal dollars to states. It happens all the time. You may disagree with it, but that doesn't make it "wrong".

The second question is a bit dubious as well - nobody's stealing money from anybody's children. It's called an "investment". It pays dividends. The metaphor of "right" and "steal" are totally incorrect. Again, you can disagree with the premise of spending money and you can disagree with the federal income tax, but it's pretty unquestionable that the federal government CAN do this and has been doing it for decades.

Anonymous said...

I think the Fed's should pull back all of these things. I don't see how the US borrowing from China or printing money in the Fed's basement so we can build a light rail line makes any financial sense (or environmental sense either given electric/hybrid cars)

Anonymous said...

"What do Tuesday's election results mean for passenger rail in North Carolina?"

The truth is that it's dead.... As dead as Elvis. You're going to see significant, actual cuts in the federal budget. High speed rail only makes sense in a few, high density corridors in the Northeast US.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in the NE, it really is the only place "right now" that makes economic sense. While ridership is strong in the CLT-RDU run, this is an area the feds can save money. It's still a nice ride as is.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:42 hit it with the quotes around "right now". The NE benefits from a transit responsible lifestyle; one that offers alternatives to everyone owning and maintaining their own mini-powerplant-running-on-borrowed-foreign-oil.
In Charlotte, and most of America, we're a slave to our automobiles. We're a slave to BP Oil - who can completely rape our natural environment in the interest of providing the automobile public with cheep and abundant gasoline.
So when will Charlotte have a choice, an alternative? When is our "right now"? I say "right now" starts today. Stop thinking about what you have parked in your garage today, and imagine what you will have in your garage in 20 years.

Anonymous said...

The Republican majority in the house will cause legislative gridlock. That means more status quo and NO INCREASE IN TRANSPORTATION FUNDS. The backlog of warranted transportation projects will continue to grow, while commensurate funding falls behind.

Be careful who you vote for folks. If you enjoy wasting fuel and time sitting in traffic, be glad your newly-elected officials will continue to defer transportation projects (under the guise of cutting spending).

Anonymous said...

The Repubs want to take out country BACK remember? Not forward. So this is a dead issue. Move on.

Anonymous said...

Where is this dividend from investment coming from. Rail travel is already heavily subsidized, this is just sinking more money in to a pit.

Anonymous said...

This country is light years behind Japan, Europe and China in high speed rail development and transportation infrastructure in general. Our priorities are funding of useless wars, 750 billion a year to defense related corporate boondoggles, and a commitment to spending 20% of GDP on healthcare (insurance companies, specialist doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical corporations). By golly, we have no $$$ left to invest in such useless crap as high speed rail. We don't need to spend on things that matter and make life better for people (provide for the common good). We are the laughing stock of the world community...

Anonymous said...

Thank God that spending on infrastructure such as rail upgrades from CLT to Raleigh will get cut with the influx of conservative tea-party house members and senators. I wouldn't know how to act without having asian countries to point to to show us how pragmatic and effective government funding of extremely necessary improvements to silly items like transportation could improve our economic standing in the world.

Bob said...

I have always wondered how the tea partiers are able to delude themselves into thinking that withholding money from infrastructure is the equivalent of cutting spending. Pushing maintance and necessary upgrade cost into the future is worse than debt since repair and constructions costs incresae over time. Even worse is the loss of productivity suffered from the lack of options connecting points A and B.

I can't wait to live in a thrid world country (but at least my taxes will be low)

Rudy James said...

Contractors subsidize large projects by taking out loans and betting on their profitability, then bidding out work to subcontractors. When it comes to billion dollar and multimillion dollar govt projects, states can't always build the required revenue at home, so, as the top subcontractor, they rely on the big contractor (the feds) to help subsidize state run projects, i.e., infrastructure and transportation. Our rail system as it stands pales in comparison to the Euro rail network, which actually requires international cooperation - though geographically Western Euro govts placed on a North American map would be divided into several regions, some state and some regionally sized. Yet, they have a more developed and effiencient rail system than the US. If done properly, our rail system could rival the Euro system, but it would take a great investment into our national infrastructure.
I'm going home to VA for a wedding next week and debating an 8hr amtrack ride from CLT to Richmond vs a 4.5 hr drive. With a high speed, Euro style train system, I could be home in 2-3 hrs, including stops, likely for a few more dollars than the current Amtrak rate, though much less than airfare, which I'm not even considering since it costs 5-6 times more to fly home vs train or roads.
I much enjoy the train and I'd like rail travel to become a more efficient means for Americans to travel between cities, as well as within urban areas.
Improving our transportation networks - rail, air and highway - is an investment in our future, not stealing from the future.
The same can be said for investing in public school education and offering benefits to companies who actually manufacture products within our borders.
We live in a world nearly devoid of economic borders, and while we must continue to assert ourselves as an international leader in commerce, we cannot look to the outside world while turning our back on our domestic responsibilities.
In order to contine to be a great nation, we must have the foresight, the gall and the will to take care of home, first and foremost.
If we want to continue as a, nee, the premier nation in which to live in the world, we must take care of our own and grown and build our own resources.

john bailo said...

Building a "high speed" rail network with trains that go 80 mph is a joke.

We need to either build 200mph+ trains, maglevs, or just let the airplanes (500mph) do the job.

Anonymous said...

The Northeast is much more progressive in their use of public transportation than is the south. That IS a fact.
I had the opportunity to ride Amtrak from Providence, RI to Charlotte.
From Providence to DC, it was an upscale person dressed nicely who was the rider. Some were headed to NYC for the day for dinner and a play. (Its a 3 hour trip one way) Some people were going from NYC to DC for the day.
However, in DC the 'rider changed' dramatically...If I could have found a way to get off the train, trust me I would have...I did not feel safe.
Look at who rides public transportation in the south--it ain't the affluent.
Look who rides CATS, it ain't the affluent unless its game day in uptown CLT.
Any additional monies put into a train, as the dems have done while they were in charge, is a waste of tax payor dollars, then again thats what dems do, - throw money at something with little regard for a 'ROI' (return on investment) and then scream they-need-more-money-to-keep-something-operating. Throwing good money after bad, as 'the project isn't breaking even.'
Well DUH...
I hope the Reupblicans do stop the project as it will be like the CATS project, not able to support itself with its ridership, so we the taxpayor will have to antey up more money to keep it afloat.
I for one am quite sick of this way of doing 'business.'
Wake up people, this is NOT the progressive northeast.
People around here and in the south have a love affair with their cars, and when given the chance to take the train or ride in their ain't a contest...

Larry said...

As someone who just came back from a furlough you most likely now understand that money is tight.

To worry about toys and the like when the fact we might just have other needs more pressing could be just a little disingenuous to the realization of just how dire or finances are at this point.

I just hope all those who supported the spending of the past will not be behind the cost cutting we need to keep solvent today. We need you media people to do a 180 and get behind what really needs to be done and not the limited agendas as were pushed in the past.

Anonymous said...

And to be polite back, building a high speed choo choo is NOT investing in this country. It be a tax payer black hole just like Amtrak is. And this choo choo will not reduce road congestion as one poster suggested. And the only reason we are "wasting" gas is because this state was negligent in building roads in part on purpose and in part because the previous Gov raided the road fund to pay for other pet liberal projects.

Before you spout off about this huge boondoogle, I would suggest you learn some facts about this issue.

And for anyone to suggest the other side needs to be careful who we vote for, have you been in a coma the last 2 years?

Anonymous said...

Rail travel doesn't make sense in the Northeast because of the density and strong economy.

The strong economy and population density are made possible BECAUSE of the abundant rail and other mass transit infrastructure.

Chicken and the egg, folks...

I bet that all this "spending reduction" will not involve one penny from the bloated budget of the most expensive military on the planet.

Watch the gridlock of the next two years and celebrate the fact that you voted for it.

cytomitch said...

I am sure the struggling people in central, rural NC will feel wonderful about 'winning' billions of dollars to 'invest' in high-speed rail that will shuttle wealthy, latte-sipping transplanted NE liberals between uptown and Raleigh...while reading a Thomas Friedman column praising their new NC train.

Anonymous said...

For rail travel (high speed, low speed, milk run, whatever) to be competitive, you need three key factors:

1. Heavy origin and destination traffic along the line, including intermediate locations. How much of a market is there for travel between CLT, GSO, and RDU? Yes, I know that there are people who need to go from CLT to RDU on any given day, but how many people do it consistently? Contrast that with the northeast corridor. There is heavy O/D traffic between the big 5 cities -- BOS, NYC, PHL, BAL, and WAS -- as well as smaller intermediate cities like Newark, Wilmington (DE), New Haven, etc. Probably a good proxy for the CLT-GSO-RDU market is to see how many trips originate at CLT airport and terminate at RDU airport, where the ticket is just CLT-RDU and not (somewhere)-CLT-RDU.

2. The travel time is competitive with both a car and rail. Generally this means trips of about 300-500 miles. That's too far to drive in a reasonable time but short enough that it makes the hassle of going to an airport a pain.

3. Your destination is easily reachable at the train station. If you're going from Charlotte to downtown Raleigh, then taking a train (which would drop you off just on the west side of downtown Raleigh) is a viable option, items #1 and #2 above notwithstanding. But if your destination is in Garner, Wake Forest, or even NC State, then a train is not really viable. Again, contrast that with the dense cities of the northeast.

Based on these three factors, train service between CLT and RDU is not really viable.

It's only about 150 miles, so it's easier (and quicker) to drive. Two, unless I am going to downtown Raleigh or am willing to pay for a taxi or rental car, it's geographically constrained. Third, is there a market for this in the first place?

Michael said...

Since we're "paying" for all this with funny money, here are suggestions for naming the first four of the new high-speed rail lines:

1 - Reading
2 - Pennsylvania
3 - B&O
4 - Short Line

Anonymous said...

Maybe I missed something but I thought that focusing our future on one mode of transportation and endlessly expanding highway lanes was sooooo 20th century. Does anyone enjoy spending time in traffic? Wake up! People say trains are a throw back, I say going back to the world of the 1950's and Eisenhower Interstate policies is the real throwback. We have a nice interstate system, now lets just maintain it and build a complementary rail system. We live in a different world now and people demand options. Hopefully NC can lead by example and continue to build a world class passenger rail system in our neck of the woods, ya'll.

Rudy James said...

High speed trains def mean 200+ mph. That it takes 7 hrs to travel b/t charlotte to richmond on rail is a joke. I understand there's not the density of travel is the SE as the more densely populated NE, but folks in urban areas in the southeast are no less sophisticated than our neighbors to the north. Atlanta has a highly sophisticated metro rail system, but we are discussing intercity ridership here. The NE certainly has more everyday biz riders than the SE due to population density and the proximity of major cities. However, as one or 2 anons said, we are looking to move fwd, not backward, and investing in our transportation system and catching up w/our international rivals is a huge investment in our future with tremendous future ROI.
Someone mentioned Obamacare is 20% of our annual spending, but that person is badly misinformed. Just like folks who say the bailout was wasteful spending by our government even though it's slated to turn a profit for the govt and reduce our national debt. That same person mentioned wasteful spending on unneccessary wars - a point w/which I wholly agree - and looking to our future I believe we are in for a long long bumpy ride if we don't begin to invest again at home.
Infrastructure, education, corporate regulation to protect citizens, and ensurance of healthcare rights for all are our most important priorities at home.
I would like to either see the GOP move back twd the center right and away from the ultra conservative, or we should just move to a multiparty system w/representation from everyone from the TP/Libertarian to the Green Party, to extreme lefists, as well. Americans comprise one of the largest citizen populations in the world, and there are certainly more than 2 political views. There's no longer any such thing as black and white, though many are disillusioned enough to believe there is.

Anonymous said...

To those who oppose high speed rail I ask you this, what do you propose? More roads? Well, to do that the entire infrastructure needs to be rebuilt. The national highway system is extremely old, some parts over 100 years old! Even if we do fix that issue, more cars equal more congestion, pollution, and where do we get the oil? How do we make rubber? Nobody wants an oil rig off their coast. And I surely don't want to make the middle East any richer! Plus, each car/truck on the road wears the road down just as fast as its re-paved. Especially in a City like Charlotte that straddles two states. SC drivers use Charlotte streets every day and we can do nothing but toll roads to get the money back and nobody wants those. If NC doesn't do something quick we WILL fall further behind. Everybody keeps talking about money, well things aren't getting cheaper. Every time we postpone it costs us more! Imagine where this region would have been if we would have done this 20 years ago. For those with no imagination I'll tell you, we wouldn't be worried about this now. Gas prices wouldn't be an issue, and the Middle East wouldn't be counting as much of our money. At the rate we're moving now we wont be moving for long. Wake up America!!!!