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This Week at Amtrak; January 28, 2010
A weekly digest of events, opinions, and forecasts from
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
America’s foremost passenger rail policy institute
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203 • Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA
Telephone 904-636-7739, Electronic Mail firstname.lastname@example.org • http://www.unitedrail.org
Volume 7, Number 4
Founded over three decades ago in 1976, URPA is a nationally known policy institute which focuses on solutions and plans for passenger rail systems in North America. Headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, URPA has professional associates in Minnesota, California, Arizona, New Mexico, the District of Columbia, Texas, New York, and other cities. For more detailed information, along with a variety of position papers and other documents, visit the URPA web site at http://www.unitedrail.org.
URPA is not a membership organization, and does not accept funding from any outside sources.
1) To the surprise of no one, when political decisions are made, those decisions are not always based in reality. Today’s announcement from the White House on how the $8 billion pie for high speed rail is being carved up can be viewed as nothing more than a string of political decisions, but, with some good results.
Every region of the country gets a piece of the pie, but, surprisingly and, with a certain note of disappointment, the Chicago area received a rather small portion. Billions are needed to untangle the web of rail lines in and out of Chicago to make both passenger and freight trains move smoother and quicker. Illinois received only $1,102,000,000 for upgrading a line between Chicago and St. Louis. Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago got another chunk of money – $823,000,000 – but not much of the money actually goes into Chicago-based infrastructure. On the east side of Chicago, the Chicago-Detroit line got $244,000,000 for stations and some signaling and infrastructure improvements.
Never really addressed were the core problems directly in and around Chicago, the nation’s largest rail hub.
Here in Florida, we received $1,250,000,000 which proves the point you shouldn’t look a gift high speed rail system in the mouth, but you really have to figure out how to feed it. Florida’s share of the spoils will pay for a hair less than half of the cost of building the redundant Orlando-Tampa high speed rail system, which the voters of Florida rejected in 2004 as too expensive.
So, now, the feds have given us half of the cost of the system, and we have to come up with a matching amount. The problem is, the State of Florida is pretty well broke, and we are a state with exceptionally high unemployment, an exceptionally high amount of home foreclosures, and a nearly stagnant tourism economy. We may have billions in federal monies coming, but it’s anybody’s guess if the Florida legislature and Governor Charlie Crist can find the matching funds. If it would have been a typical federal/state partnership of 80/20, most likely $500,000,000 could have been found by scrounging through various state capital budgets for a number of programs. But, with a 50/50 match, it’s not a lock Florida can find the money.
Some money was awarded to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of North Carolina for track and infrastructure upgrades, as well as rolling stock purchases, totaling $620,000,000. Political language can be found in the award, such as “doubling the number of frequencies between Charlotte, North Carolina and Raleigh, North Carolina.” Well, gee, yes, that’s a true statement, but we’re only talking about from two frequencies to four frequencies, hardly an Interstate highway-clearing endeavor.
A fascinatingly small amount of money went to the Northeast; only a total of $485,000,000, which includes some work on the Northeast Corridor.
California received the largest prize, totaling $2,344,000,000, which not only goes to the proposed new California high speed route, but also includes monies for the Pacific Surfliners, the Capitol corridor trains, and others areas, specifically for pollution mitigation. Considering the cost of California’s new high speed system is going to be north of $40,000,000,000, California isn’t going to be getting much federal help from this go-round.
2) What will the $8 billion do specifically for Amtrak? Actually, Amtrak will benefit nicely from a number of these projects, mostly in the form of enhanced track and infrastructure, which will improve running times, eliminate a lot of railroad congestion, add some new station buildings (something Amtrak pretty desperately needs in a lot of cities), and boost rolling stock.
3) A lot of fuss was made during the announcement about how all of this is a “down payment” for the beginning of high speed rail, and we should be happy for all of the jobs these few dollars (in Washington terms, not in real world terms) will create. Comparisons were made to the early days of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system, and we can look to a future of high speed rail rivaling today’s Interstate highways.
Some very reasonable arguments were made (which were not political arguments, so therefore ignored) that perhaps one high speed system – as a demonstration project – should have been selected and completely built to prove the wonderfulness of high speed rail. Not a bad idea; however, political realities said as much money as possible should be spread around to political swing states which will benefit incumbents at the expense of reality.
4) Of interest to many of us are the dozens and billions of dollars worth of projects which didn’t receive funding. Will those projects remain viable for future funding? Will some other source of funding be found for the best of those projects?
We know the White House has proposed a funding level freeze for three years for all non-defense and non-entitlement programs in Washington. This freeze includes the Department of Transportation. Since Amtrak received a high amount of funding in the current fiscal year budget, life will be good for Amtrak if current levels are maintained.
But, what about these new projects? Will an annual infusion of $1 billion be enough to keep these programs going, especially in California?
Take a look at one specific, unfunded project here in Florida; a favorite of many.
Amtrak and the Florida Department of Transportation proposed a request for $268 million – using the old, true metaphor of about the same or lower cost than an urban Interstate interchange – for restoring service on Florida’s original tourist passenger line and first real economic engine, the Florida East Coast Railway.
We lost primary passenger service on the FEC when the unions ferociously struck the railroad in 1963. All of the “name” Florida passenger trains from the Midwest and originating on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad were moved off the FEC at Jacksonville and picked up the old Seaboard Air Line Railroad route at Auburndale, Florida into West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.
For $268 million, service would be restored on the FEC between Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, returning passenger trains to major tourist destinations such as St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, the Cape Canaveral area, and the coast just above Palm Beach. Included in the cost of restoration were eight stations, upgrading the FEC for 90 M.P.H. running, a track connection between the FEC and the Tri-Rail line at West Palm Beach which Amtrak uses, upgrades to the proposed Miami Intermodal Center, and additional rolling stock for regional frequencies in addition to splitting the Silver Meteor and Silver Star in Jacksonville and sending half of the train to Miami via the FEC and the other half via Orlando.
The proposal was a great, inexpensive deal for Florida, and, beyond Amtrak, would have benefitted the future of Tri-Rail by building the connecting track between the FEC and Tri-Rail’s track for future Tri-Rail expansion up and down the FEC to both the north and south of West Palm Beach.
What will happen now to this project? If Florida has to pony up $1.25 billion to build the high speed rail between Orlando and Tampa (which will provide redundant service to existing Amtrak service), will there be any money for new service on the FEC? It’s doubtful the proposed Orlando-Tampa high speed line will bring any additional visitors to Florida, but the FEC line has the potential of adding eight new highly desirable tourist destinations to the Amtrak system, as well as dramatically cutting the travel time between Jacksonville and Miami.
Most likely, it’s the same story all over the country. Political decisions were made to carve up the $8 billion, but what are the immediate results and consequences? Perhaps it would have been better to designate $1 billion to the Orlando-Tampa line, and almost fully fund the FEC project? Inquiring minds want to know.
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J. Bruce Richardson
United Rail Passenger Alliance, Inc.
1526 University Boulevard, West, PMB 203
Jacksonville, Florida 32217-2006 USA