BLOG POST

And The Envelope, Please

The Obama Administration today announced the recipients of $8 billion in high-speed rail funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The awards represent a major leap forward in federal investment in our long-neglected passenger rail system.

The big winners are California, which will receive more than $2 billion toward construction of the San Francisco-Los Angeles core of its proposed 220 mph high-speed rail system, and Florida, which will receive $1.25 billion for construction of a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando.

Other projects receiving major funding include links between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Chicago and St. Louis; Raleigh and Charlotte; and the cities of the Pacific Northwest.

The overall thrust of today's decision seems to be - outside of the commitment to true high-speed rail projects in California and Florida - to spread the jam pretty thinly, supporting numerous small projects designed to make incremental improvements to passenger rail service in many parts of the country. That's a smart approach for several reasons:

  • The California and Florida proposals are the closest to being fully baked, with years of detailed study and advance planning, and, in the case of California, a major commitment of state resources. The Florida plan, for example, could result in creation of the nation's first true high-speed line by the middle of this decade. Soon, if all goes well, advocates of high-speed rail won't have to point to Europe or Asia to showcase the benefits of efficient rail service.
  • Incremental improvements - modest increases in speeds, reduction in delays and increases in the number of round-trips - can produce big increases in ridership at limited cost and in a short period of time. Similar investments in recent years have doubled Amtrak ridership between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and Chicago and St. Louis and contributed to an eight-fold increase in ridership on the Portland-Seattle corridor. 
  • Building a strong political constituency for rail investment will require demonstrating that passenger rail can play an important role in solving transportation problems all around the country. High-speed rail has often been dismissed as an idea that would only work in the densely populated Northeast - despite the existence of several corridors around the country with promising population and travel patterns. With high-speed rail funding distributed to several regions, it will be easier to build a national constituency for sufficient and consistent investment in rail.

Passenger rail can reduce America's dependence on oil, boost the economy, reduce congestion on our highways and in our airports, and lay the groundwork for an effective 21st century transportation system. Today's funding awards are a start toward achieving that vision, but are just a down payment on the investment America must make to have a passenger rail system worthy of the world's most economically advanced nation.

There will be much more on the case for high-speed rail - and the impact it can have on regions around the United States - in our upcoming report with U.S. PIRG Education Fund, "The Right Track," which will be coming out in the next couple of weeks.