Sunday, April 4, 2010

High Speed Rail Recover Funding: An Overview

In January the Obama administration committed $8 billion in recovery act funds to the development of a high speed rail system in the United States. It marks the first such investment since the Acela service was initiated on the Washington, DC to Boston corridor in December of 2000.

Rather than focus the money on a single line, the administration has decided to distribute the money among a number of projects as 'seed money' to initiate higher speed passenger rail service. Whereas in most developed countries futuristic trains carry patients over international boundaries at over 200 mph, in the United States the aim for many of these lines is to incrementally increase speeds to 110 mph.

The largest investment goes to California, which seeks to establish a comprehensive system between Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and Anaheim that stands apart in that it would actually reach speeds of 220 mph. The cost of such a system is estimated at over $30 billion - the Obama administration's modest investment of $2.3 billion would be only the beginning.

The Administration gave $1.25 billion to Florida to initate service between Tampa and Orlando. This project was seen as the most shovel ready - the state had reserved the median of I-4 as a high speed rail right-of-way for years. Florida had estimated a cost of $2.6 billion to build the line. The state plans future extensions to Miami and Jacksonville.

The third largest winner of economic stimulus funds for high speed rail is the corridor between St. Louis and Chicago, where the government hopes to increase top speeds to 110 mph and add additional trips between the cities. This line is part of the Chicago-hub midwest high speed rail plan that involves 110 mph corridors from Chicago to Detroit and Minneapolis as well as St. Louis. Eventually these three trunk lines would be increased to 220 mph service and new 110 mph lines would run to Omaha, Cleveland and Louisville.

The line between Minneapolis and Chicago got a major boost when $822 million in funding was granted to implement 110 mph service between Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The line between Chicago and Detroit will recieve $244 in improvements that include relieving congestion on the southeast side of Chicago that has plagued railroads for a century.

A new 79 mph service between Cincinnati and Cleveland will fill in a major gap in Amtrak's passenger rail network and put service on one of the most populated corridors in the country. The government dedicated $400 million to get this service up and running.

In the Pacific northwest almost $600 million has been dedicated to lay extra siding tracks and straighten the line between Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. The states hope additional round trip service along the corridor will be possible, as well as additional trains to Vancounver, BC.

The Southeast High Speed Rail corridor recieved $520 million to increase service speed and frequency between Raleigh and Charlotte and to relieve congestion between Washington and Richmond.

The remaining $512 million was distributed between projects in the mid-Atlantic, New England, Texas, and Iowa.

One thing jumps out at me from all these numbers - overwhelmingly these funds went to areas where a tradition of public transportation use does not exist. Though significant state investments in rail have been made in Illinois, North Carolina, California and Washington state, these funds are overwhelmingly going to places like Wisconsin, Florida, Missouri and Ohio where passenger rail use is an unproven x-factor at best.

The gamble the administration is making is that increased availability and speed will lure more users to these systems, and by providing seed money to geographically diverse regions they might instigate political and social interest in building out these systems.

I think this money would have been better spent elsewhere - I agree with the decision to spend it on rail, but not necessarily on these lines. In future posts I hope to discuss where this money would have been better spent.

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