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Florida's Rejected High-Speed Rail Money Bails Out Amtrak

May 15, 2011 - 6:00pm

Florida's $2.4 billion of rejected high-speed rail money won't move America closer to a national, or even regional, HSR network. Instead, critics say it amounts to little more than a bailout Band-Aid to money-losing Amtrak.

By distributing $2 billion of Florida's earmarked funds to 22 other jurisdictions, the Obama administration has spread money so thin that negligible results are almost guaranteed.

"The White House high-speed rail initiative, stripped of its high-blown rhetoric, is in fact a program of modest incremental improvements to existing Amtrak passenger rail services," said Ken Orski, a transportation expert based in Maryland.

Scott Thomasson, policy director of the Progressive Policy Institute, called the post-Florida dole-out "a victory for incrementalism," and Thomasson didn't necessarily mean that in a positive way.

The largest single recipient is Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, where a $795 million grant is aimed at increasing top passenger-train speeds to 160 mph on a 24-mile stretch of track between New York and Philadelphia, and alleviating a major bottleneck in Queens that delays trains coming in and out of Manhattan.

The only other HSR project to receive additional funding was the California High Speed Rail Authority, which got $300 million to extend its Central Valley rail segment by an additional 20 miles.

The remaining funds -- barely half the total -- were designated for conventional train systems.

Some of the money was divvied among Midwestern states for track upgrades to improve reliability of Amtrak service on the Chicago-St. Louis and Kalamazoo-Dearborn lines,and for the purchase of new passenger rail cars and locomotives.

Smaller amounts went for minor enhancements in passenger rail service in eight other states.

All Amtrak passenger service, except for the Northeast Corridor's Acela train, runs at a loss and requires ongoing government subsidies. Acela, whose trains travel up to 135 mph, charges $235 for a one-way coach ticket on its "shortest" 6-hour, 37-minute trip between Boston and Washington, D.C.

House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica wasn't impressed with the White House's shotgun approach away from bullet trains.

"Once again the administration has scattered funding to numerous slower-speed rail projects," Mica, R-Orlando, said in a press release. A vociferous fan of high-speed rail, Mica previously condemned Florida Gov. Rick Scott's rejection of the federal funds.

Railroad Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., was tougher on the White House.

"I continue to question the realism of the president's overall high-speed rail policy," said Shuster. "We need to focus government funds on the lines that make the most sense ... Until then, true high-speed rail will remain on the drawing board."

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm admitted that the final round of projects would not significantly reduce trip times, but asserted that they were necessary to lay a foundation for future service improvements.

The most immediate impact will be to replenish Amtrak's coffers. As "Investor's Business Daily" reported last week, Amtrak relies on more than $1.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies annually, making it the most heavily subsidized mode of transportation.

Doubling down on that railroad job, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood boasted in his blog: "America is abuzz with the news that the high-speed train is just around the bend."

Orski says Americans are being taken for a ride, in the wrong direction.

"Progressive advocacy groups, predictably, praised the U.S. DOT announcement as putting thousands of Americans to work and reducing dependency on foreign oil," Orski said.

But drilling down into the newly funded projects, he wasn't so impressed.

"The value and cost-effectiveness of this investment remains to be demonstrated. For example, the$196 million grant to Michigan will allow travelers to save a mere 12 minutes and increase average train speeds from 60 to 64 mph in the Chicago-Detroit corridor."

Orski believes that the administration's latest disbursements were a last gasp for high-speed rail as Washington slams into fiscal reality. Fiscal 2011 funds for high-speed rail have been rescinded and funding for next year remains in doubt after the House Budget Committee zeroed it out.

"The ambitious $53 billion high-speed rail plan proposed by the White House earlier this year has been given a quiet burial," Orski reported in his Innovation News Brief on Monday.

Transit skeptics and fiscal conservatives say good riddance. Even California, which has invested the most money in high-speed rail, is concerned about losing steam, according to a new report by the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.

"The pledge to connect 80 percent of the nation to high-speed rail in the next 25 years, repeated by Secretary LaHood in a mantra-like fashion, is particularly misleading and has raised false expectations in the rail industry and among transportation reformers," Orski argues.

"A more tempered, realistic and accurate conclusion would be that the prospect for true high-speed rail in this country, with bullet trains running on their own dedicated tracks, still remains highly uncertain."

As grandiose visions of high-speed rail wheeze to a halt, Orski maintains hope for the long term, particularly in the population-intensive Northeast Corridor, "where road and air traffic congestion will soon be reaching levels that threaten its continued growth and productivity."

Meantime, Congress will do well to protect the Highway Trust Fund and keep roads from falling apart as the nation's economic slump grinds on.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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