How to salvage Obama’s high-speed rail ‘disaster’

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls the rail plan — target of a coordinated attack by the Right — “a complete catastrophe,” and tells where the nation should focus.

Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

The time has come to candidly examine why President Obama’s high-speed rail proposal is in such terrible shape — and to figure out how passenger rail service could be expanded despite the serious recent setbacks. One leader well worth listening to is Bruce Babbitt — a thoughtful politician who was President Clinton’s Interior Secretary and, before that, governor of Arizona for nine years.

Babbitt let loose his frustrations last week, identifying himself as “an advocate of high-speed rail” who views what’s happened over the past year as “a complete catastrophe.”

“Ugh,” the 72-year-old Democrat groaned during an urban forum for journalists at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Said Babbitt: “It has, to put it mildly, been a total disaster.” Three libertarian or conservative organizations — the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Reason Foundation — have mounted what Petra Todorovich of the Regional Plan Association calls “a concerted attack on high-speed rail.” 

With segments of the rail plan now cancelled in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and with some federal funding revoked by Congressional Republicans this month, Babbitt thinks we must approach rail planning much more strategically than the Obama administration did.

Of the president’s stated aim — provision of high-speed rail service to 80 percent of the American population in 25 years — Babbitt declared, “It’s fantasy.”

In his view, the Obama plan suffers from these critical flaws:

• Routes were  poorly chosen. The Orlando-to-Tampa line — 84 miles mostly in an Interstate highway corridor — would have run from one city that’s “not a model of transit” to another city with the same transit deficiency. Said Babbitt: “Frankly, it’s not surprising that the governor of Florida [when offered 90 percent of the funds to construct the line] turned it down.”

• Goals were defined vaguely. They were not hammered out through extensive discussion and political brokering — activities essential, in Babbitt’s judgment, to the program’s success.

• “The president didn’t help his visionary statement by holding up the transcontinental railroad as a model.” One-hundred-forty million acres were distributed to railroads through that post-Civil War enterprise, which led to the Crédit Mobilier scandal — “one of the largest government-sponsored fraudulent ventures of all time.”

A better way

Rail proponents should emulate not the transcontinental railroad but rather the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, Babbitt believes. Like today’s high-speed rail initiative, the interstate highway proposal initially received a hostile reception in influential quarters. “The governors were largely opposed,” Babbitt said. Most came out against a raise in the gasoline tax or in excise taxes.

Ultimately, the highway act owed its passage to “a lot of discussion, brokering, setting goals,” according to Babbitt. Negotiation over where the highways would be built “took place ahead of the act.” The same should hold true for any far-reaching rail program, he thinks.

“Let’s start with something realistic, where the payoffs will be most real,” Babbitt urged. The nation’s biggest megaregion, the dense corridor from Boston to Washington, already “carries one-third of Amtrak’s traffic,” making it, in his view, a logical place to demonstrate that high-speed rail can work.

The biggest difficulty, he indicated, is that high-speed rail requires a dedicated form of financing. Would the country as a whole be willing to pay for a system serving seven or so states? That’s highly unlikely, said Babbitt. “There are 43 states that will say no to an earmarked tax.”

The way to overcome that obstacle is by establishing a gasoline tax that would be paid by residents of the Northeast corridor states, he argued. “That’s the lesson of the Interstate Highway Act. We need to get back to dedicated user fees. It should be focused on regional users.”

Jerold Kayden, a Harvard professor of urban planning and design, asked why the governors of those states couldn’t get together and work out a deal themselves. “I was a governor,” Babbitt reminded Kayden. “This  rail corridor is not going to work with seven governors [actually, probably eight or nine, plus the District of Columbia] going their own way.” 

In the case of interstate highways, “Babbitt maintained, the only way we got clarity was through federal legislation,” and that’s the only way to nail down a high-speed program for the Eastern seaboard.

“It’s not going to happen this year,” he acknowledged, but it can be done, he thinks, if there is “a clear purpose,” if the leaders “strip the discretion out” of the legislation, and if they “do it through the political process.”

(California has one advantage on high-speed rail, he noted. Its line would be within a single state, and thus not in need of federal legislation. However, he added, California “should link its program with a revenue source.”)

Megaregions would benefit

Babbitt spoke on Friday in the two-day forum sponsored by the Lincoln Institute, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and the Harvard Graduate School of Urban Design. The next day, Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, the New York-based Regional Plan Association’s initiative to develop a national infrastructure and growth strategy, argued that high-speed rail does in fact make sense in America’s largest megaregion.

“We do approach European densities in megaregions” such as the Boston-to-Washington corridor, said Todorovich. Megaregions — there are about 10 of them around the country, including the Great Lakes, the Texas Triangle (Houston-Dallas-Austin-San Antonio), the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and Cascadia (Portland-Tacoma-Seattle) — contain 75 percent of the nation’s population and are key to America’s economic growth, she emphasized.

“China is greasing the wheels for its national economy” by building an extensive high-speed rail system, she said. The US should pursue better rail service for three reasons, she argued:

• “It boosts the productivity of service and knowledge-sector workers.”

• “It deepens labor markets for businesses, and broadens the employment pool for workers (more worker housing options)."

• “It fosters economic synergies among specialized industries (agglomeration economies)” such as health care, database management, pharmaceuticals, and research and development/biotech.

Like Babbitt and like Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Todorovich thinks “we ought to invest first in the places with the greatest ridership ... the greatest chance of success.”

That strategy favors the Northeast Corridor, which has been the subject of three recent studies — a Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan prepared in May 2010 by representatives of 12 states, Amtrak, and other entities; a separate Amtrak design report; and a University of Pennsylvania study that was presented to no less than Vice President Joseph Biden.

The Northeast, Todorovich thinks, needs to come to a consensus on whether it wants a dedicated high-speed route and where it should be. New rights-of-way will probably have to be acquired. There isn’t enough room for high-speed rail in parts of the existing Amtrak corridor.

The existing corridor has a backlog of $8.8 billion in needed repairs. By 2030, investment to meet growing demand should total $52 billion — and that’s just in the existing corridor, without any dedicated high-speed tracks, Todorovich said.

She suggested three potential revenue sources for high-speed rail — a penny on the gasoline tax, a passenger rail surcharge of $1, and a 1 percent foreign oil import tax — which together could generate approximately $5.4 billion a year across the country. The revenue would be lower if those charges were imposed only in the Northeast. 

On the bright side, she noted that Rep. Mica has been bringing members of his committee — some of whom represent rural areas — to urban locales to improve their understanding of passenger rail networks and the places they serve.  Babbitt’s proposal for a Northeast-focused federal rail act is “a great idea,” she said, adding that it “would have to be matched by federal funding.” 

Where the stations go

There are now one to two trains an hour between New York and Washington. That could rise to 8 to 10 per hour, Todorovich said. Some cities could gain tremendously from faster access to major centers. “Hartford would suddenly be 45 minutes to New York City,” she said.

Certain stations would have to move or be supplemented by additional locations. Baltimore’s main service would move from Penn Station, well north of downtown, to the Charles Center, she suggested. Philadelphia would add service at Market East, which is closer to Center City destinations than is the existing 30th Street Station. 

To obtain the maximum benefits from better rail service, “there needs to be a concerted strategy around stations,” Todorovich said. “It works best in center cities.”

Resistance from the Right

Ambitious rail plans have been subjected to a fierce campaign of disparagement in recent months. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Reason Foundation have worked particularly hard to defeat the Obama rail plan, Todorovich told the gathering of about 30 journalists from around the country.

For companies that profit from the highway system and automobile-reliant means of transportation, the libertarian or conservative foundations have proven to be useful torch-bearers. SourceWatch, part of the Center for Media and Democracy, reports that Ford Motor, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell Oil, and the Western States Petroleum Association have been among the donors to the Reason Foundation. David H. Koch of Koch Industries,  once described by the Center for Public Integrity as "the biggest oil company you have never heard of," is a Reason trustee.

SourceWatch says Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the auto-maker Honda have been among Heritage’s contributors, though corporate donations to Heritage are small when compared than those made by individuals and foundations. Over the years, Heritages backers in the foundation world have included the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and three Scaife foundations.

Cato, founded by Edward H. Crane and Charles Koch, has over the years received donations from corporate supporters including the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Honda North America, Toyota, Volkswagen of America, and Wal-Mart Stores, according to SourceWatch.

Nonetheless, Todorovich thinks rail projects can gain considerable support from the populace and some of it from Republicans who hold elective office.  After the new governor of Florida, Rick Scott, rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for the Orlando-Tampa rail route, 24 states, including 11 with Republican governors, applied for portions of the money that Florida gave up.

Debunking high-speed rail myths

It can be hard for most people to get a handle on the pros and cons of high-speed rail. Consequently, on April 13, asked lawmakers and rail experts to answer CNN users' questions about high-speed rail. Among the questions, comments, and expert replies were these:

 A CNN user: "There are NO high speed rail projects in the world that are profitable. None. They are all taxpayer/government subsidized."

Expert response: "Not necessarily true."

Robert Puentes at the Brookings Institution: "The Acela Express, Amtrak's high speed rail service along the Northeast corridor, has shown a positive return from its New York-to-D.C. route. ... And it's not fair to just point the finger at high speed rail. Highways and other modes of transportation, like the airlines, are heavily subsidized, too."

Reps. John Mica and Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials: "While many high-speed rail systems in the world rely on a government subsidy, this in no way means that rail operations cannot be profitable. ... Private rail operators in Great Britain, such as South West Transport and Virgin Rail, compete for franchise intercity rail service contracts and regularly generate a profit. Rail routes in Japan and France turn a profit. ... Rather than relying on the federal government and Amtrak to operate profitable passenger rail, we must put the focus on the private sector to develop and operate self-sustaining, profitable passenger rail in parts of the country where it makes sense."

CNN user: "The cost to build highways actually exceed rail costs."

Expert response: It depends.

Philip Longman, senior research fellow, New America Foundation: "... in hilly or mountainous areas, building a rail line may require more earthmoving, including tunneling, than building a highway. But this consideration doesn't apply on flatter terrain, and in almost all instances, a rail line can move as many or more people than a highway using a much narrower right-of-way. Because of this, building a rail usually involves far less condemnation of private property than building an Interstate. ... Also, advances in the use of computers to control train movements are now allowing us to run many more trains on the same track than in the past. This is further adding to the cost advantage [of] rail."

CNN user: "History shows that investment in infrastructure results in economic growth in the future."

Expert response: "That’s true."

Longman: "One of the biggest and often overlooked advantages of high speed rail, and even of not-so-high-speed rail, is its ability to restore the economic promise of many mid-sized cities where airline service is no longer available or prohibitively expensive.”

CNN user: “You know that these projects (like high-speed rail) never end at or under budget."

Expert response: “Not true.”

Puentes: "It's not true to say these projects are always over budget since we have no high speed rail in the country currently. ... This kind of transparency [in the federal stimulus package] is very helpful to prevent enormous overruns...."

Expert response: “The reader is correct.”

Reps. Mica and Shuster: "In the past, many of America's transportation projects have run over cost and over budget. ... The reason for this can largely be found in the cumbersome manner in which federal transportation projects are advanced. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has received testimony that simply adding one federal dollar to a transportation project adds 14 years to the delivery time. This is unacceptable and it inflates project costs unnecessarily."

Expert response: Proper spending ensured.

Undersecretary Roy Kienitz, US Department of Transportation: “These projects help build the economy. According to a study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a high-speed rail line to Los Angeles would create as much as $7.6 billion a year in new business sales, producing up to 55,000 new jobs and $3 billion in new wages. In Chicago, high-speed rail would produce up to $6.1 billion in yearly sales, 42,000 new jobs, and $2.5 billion in new wages for workers."

From Reps. Mica and Shuster, some encouraging final words: “Today, businesses and commuters lose $115 million each year in wasted time and fuel and spend four billion hours per year stuck in traffic. 60 percent of the urban road miles of Interstate 95 are heavily congested. 70 percent of our nation's chronically delayed flights originate in the New York-New Jersey airspace. There is simply no more effective way to alleviate congestion of our roads and airways and get people to their destinations than rail."