By Noel T. Braymer
The Federal Government’s history of spending money for transportation goes back at least to 1824 when the Army Corps of Engineer was authorized to survey roads and canal routes as well as improve river traffic on major rivers. Even before the railroads were built the government supported stagecoach service with mail contracts. This continued with mail contracts for the railroads and later for passenger planes. In the 19th Century railroads often received cash and land grants from Federal and local government to get railroads built. Starting In the 1950’s the Federal Government paid 90% of the costs for the construction of the interstate highway system. Federal grants are a major funding source for rail transit construction projects in many major metropolitan areas in the country.
So what about Federal spending support for rail passenger service today? Most of the money the Federal Government spends for Rail Passenger service goes to Amtrak. It is often the favorite whipping boy for government critics. Much of Amtrak’s money is spent fixing and maintaining the railroad that it owns on the NEC between Boston, New York and Washington. This railroad has plenty of infrastructure over 100 years ago old and suffered years of deferred maintenance after World War II. Many of the commuter rail services on the East Coast depend on Amtrak to maintain and operate the tracks of the NEC that these commuter trains also use. Very little of the capital money that Amtrak gets is spent outside of the Northeast Corridor.
During the years between 2000-2008 the Federal Railroad Administration worked on a program to help fund construction for higher speed rail passenger service in major city corridors across the county. Of the $10 billion dollars congress approved for this program, the FRA received request from 39 states for $75 billion dollars. Almost all of this $10 billion dollars has been obligated in 5 major regions. These include Seattle-Portland, San Francisco-Los Angeles, North Carolina-Washington DC, the Northeast Corridor and the Midwest Chicago Hub. This covers 65 percent of the population of the county. Needless to say $10 billion dollars is only a drop in the bucket to increase rail passenger service even up to 125 miles per hour, let alone building services to over 200 miles per hour. It was only after the election of 2008 that funding for High Speed Rail projects became an issue. The main issue was more over partisan politics than transportation policy.
When the California High Speed Rail project bond issue passed in 2008, the California High Speed Rail Authority had reasonable expectations that the project would be able to received up to a third of the project’s funding from Federal sources. While attempts to defund California HSR construction has delayed the project, it has failed to kill it which was the intent. No viable alternatives for the transportation problems that affect California or the nation as a whole have been presented by opponents of High Speed Rail.
Lack of funding, particularly at the Federal level for transportation infrastructure spending will increase the problems we already have with poorly maintained bridges, congested roads and saturated air travel corridors. Transportation problems lead to problems for the economy. The best way to win the most support for increased transportation spending is to make sure as many people benefit as possible with such improvements. In politics, more gets done when more people are satisfied and the fewer feel cheated.
There is interest nation wide for more rail passenger service. The best returns on an investment with rail service comes improving what we already have. We have towns all across America which want rail passenger service or expanded service to what they already have.To do this on a national level will require funding to allow passenger trains to operate faster and allow smooth operation of mixed freight and passenger service. Expanding rail passenger service national wide will mean not everyone will get what they want. The NEC has a speed limit now of 160 mile per hour. It will be very expensive to realign many of these curves on the densely populated NEC to allow speeds faster than 160 miles per hour. What is long overdue and more productive is to turn the Northeast Corridor into a larger rail passenger network with major cities on the corridors becoming rail hubs. Networks are the norm around much of the world for rail passenger service. What we need to build is a system of regional rail networks to connect with a larger national rail network to serve the most markets and people as possible. What we have now on the NEC is a corridor with few connections at best to the surrounding area like Long Island, Upstate New York, Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Toronto or Montreal.
From California’s experience with rail passenger service there is much to learn both good and bad, particularly for the efforts for High Speed Rail. Much of the early planning for California’s High Speed Rail was unrealistic and unaffordable. Also missing were good connections to existing rail service to serve more of the State by rail. Increasingly the California High Speed Rail Authority is saving money by using existing rights of way for High Speed Rail service, especially in urban areas. Time savings trying to go faster than 125 miles per hour are small in the short segments in urban areas. But the cost savings of using existing rights of way are significant. Money is also saved by sharing stations and tracks with other rail passenger services in urban areas. This also makes passenger transfers easier between High Speed and other rail services. This also allows the High Speed Rail Authority to spend money to help upgrade services such as electrifying Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco as well as upgrade and add tracks in Southern California between Fullerton and Burbank. Not only does this improve rail service in general, but in is much cheaper than building separate railroads alongside the existing tracks.
The goal of a Federal Policy for National Rail Passenger service should be to largely fund infrastructure improvements which will allow faster rail passenger service, increase track capacity and reduce rail congestion for both passenger and freight trains. These should include projects that will help reduce the operating subsidy needs for intercity trains and promote services to operate at break even or at an operating profit. Any needed subsidies should be a local issue. Central to doing this is a need for interlocking systems of services creating a rail passenger network. This will provide service to more places nation wide and increase revenues and serve more people. The emphasis except in a few corridors of this network shouldn’t be to compete with air travel. But nationally rail service should be competitive with highway travel which will reduce congestion on the highways, reduce emissions and save energy.