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High Speed Rail: High Costs Derail Development

January 4, 2013

America’s quest to build high speed rail may have gotten derailed in the last few years, but there are signs that it may be getting back on track.

That’s because California — a trendsetting state because of its size and population — is moving ahead with its own ambitious plans to make high speed rail a reality in that state.

The Golden State recently passed legislation authorizing the sale of $2.7 billion in bonds that will be used to fund the fastest train in the nation as well as the largest public infrastructure project. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure into law this summer.

When completed, California’s high speed rail will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles and will attain speeds of 220 miles per hour for a trip that will last 2 hours and 40 minutes. Ultimately, the aim is for the train to run from the state capital of Sacramento to San Diego near the U.S-Mexico border or about 800 miles. The train will travel at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour with approximately 15 stops. California really is going to be the first place in the country to have truly high speed rail.

“All eyes are on California,” said Angie Schmitt, editor of Streetsblog, an online advocacy journalism site that, according to its website, promotes sustainable transportation and more livable cities and towns. “California really is going to be the first place in the country to have truly high speed rail.”

California High Speed Rail Authority spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley said the authority is following the principles laid out in its revised April 2012 business plan when it comes to building the rail and making improvements to existing regional transit. That plan called for the new rail to be built in the Central Valley and for improvements to the initial bookend cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It also called for a blended approach which would allow existing metropolitan rail infrastructure to be used as much as possible to provide connection into urban areas. Those existing rail systems would tie into the high speed rail backbone through the Central Valley.

The Central Valley rail work will be contracted to a number of different vendors through a series of competitive bids. The first bid, a contract between $25 and $50 million, was completed in October and disseminated to interested vendors. Alley said the association should have the vendor picked by the end of the year and construction should begin in the first quarter of 2013.

“We are going to do what’s right for the state, and hopefully, other states can learn from us” said Alley, who predicted that when the high speed rail is complete, tourists who visit the state will “go home and talk about it” just as they do other California attractions.

For high speed rail advocates, the California experience could not have come at a better time. President Barack Obama has been a big believer in high speed rail and he asked people to “imagine whisking through towns at speeds of over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation and ending up just blocks from your destination.” He declared it would be a great project “to rebuild America.”

But the main source of funding for high speed rail drew the ire of some Republicans. The money was included in the federal stimulus bill or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Decisions were made to turn down dollars for both high speed rail — defined by the federal government as trains that move at 110 miles per hour or far slower than the California project and European trains — as well as money for higher speed rail, where trains move slower, but are still quicker than cars.

Those who rejected the high speed rail money were primarily GOP governors who were elected in 2010. Perhaps the most high profile refusal came from Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who, shortly after being elected governor of the third largest state in the nation, returned $2.4 billion to the federal government.

Scott used studies conducted by the Reason Foundation, a Libertarian think tank, and the Heritage Foundation citing concerns about high operating costs, low ridership, delays in construction and cost overruns. Scott said Florida taxpayers could potentially be on the hook for $3 billion.

Weeks after rejecting the money, Scott’s own agency, the Florida Department of Transportation, released a study showing that the line which would have connected Tampa to Orlando, would have had a $10.2 million operating surplus in its first year of operation and a $28.6 million surplus by 2025 when the rail was completed down to Miami.

Scott’s decision to reject the federal money put to an end nearly 30 years of planning by Florida leaders that started with former Gov. Bob Graham in 1986. Florida has had an on-again, off-again relationship with rail. Florida businessman Doc Dockery — a longtime rail advocate — said that Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles opposed rail in the early ‘90s though he subsequently changed his mind. Frustrated at the lack of action on a bullet train in Florida despite recommendations from a blue ribbon gubernatorial panel to have a train from Miami to Orlando to Tampa, Dockery in 1999 mounted an effort to amend Florida’s Constitution to require that it be built.

The constitutional amendment was passed with 53 percent approval. With the help of his lawmaker wife, State Sen. Paula Dockery, an “implementing law” was passed which placed the content of the amendment into state statutes.

But Gov. Jeb Bush refused to fund the train and went further by launching a successful effort in 2004 to remove the constitutional mandate for high speed rail that had been previously approved by voters. Bush, however, fell short in his subsequent efforts to kill the bullet train outright by having the “implementing law” regarding the train repealed from statutes. Two years after Bush left office the High Speed Rail Commission, which included Dockery, began meeting again and worked on the plan that eventually was recommended for federal funding.

“I think eventually the people who are for high speed rail will win because they must win. We had to have an interstate highway system,” Dockery said, adding that President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced a heavy lift in selling the idea to Congress and the American people. “And we have to have passenger rail.”

While federally funded high speed rail may be dead in Florida, the first privately funded (though not high speed) service is underway. Florida East Coast Industries — a company established more than a century ago by rail baron Henry Flagler — announced plans for intercity passenger rail service by 2014 that will run from Miami to Orlando with service in Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

The line will be owned by All Aboard Florida, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries, and could create 1,000 permanent jobs, according to the company. In September, All Aboard Florida hired the AMEC Environment & Infrastructure engineering firm to handle the design, planning and environmental compliance and permitting associated with project.

Dockery called the effort a good first step. “It doesn’t do enough, but it’s a start and I applaud the start,” he said.

The other states that rejected federal funding included Ohio and Wisconsin. Ohio Gov. John Kasich turned back $385 million for a train to connect Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million in federal funding for a plan that would have connected Milwaukee to Madison. There has been no talk of high speed rail in Wisconsin — which has $6.5 billion transportation budget for fiscal years 2011-2013, since Walker’s decision.

That doesn’t mean, though, they haven’t been talking about transportation in Wisconsin. An 11-member Transportation Finance and Policy Study Commission was created in 2011 and directed to make legislative recommendations regarding the future of transportation finance. Craig Thompson, executive director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin and a commission member, said the group is expected to finalize its recommendations early, by December 2012. Nowhere will there be mention of high speed rail, though, said Thompson, whose 400 association members range from road builders to mass transit advocates.

“The statutory language that created the commission was quite clear about the areas the commission should study and provide recommendations about. High speed rail was not on the list,” Thompson said.

While there is no talk of high speed rail in the Capitol in Madison, the talk on the street remains. High speed rail advocate Gary Goyke said returning $810 million in federal dollars was a “generational mistake” that will have repercussions for decades to come.

Goyke and pro-rail citizens like him have formed All Aboard Wisconsin. The group, Goyke says, has filed its preliminary paperwork and hopes to have a 501 c 4 in place to promote candidates who support high speed rail and rail options.

The Federal Railroad Association downplays the Florida snub noting that in 2012 there are 44 projects in 18 states totaling nearly $3 billion under construction or set to break ground. The majority of those projects — about 85 percent — are concentrated in five key regional networks which account for 65 percent of the United States population, said FRA spokesperson Kevin Thompson.

Some examples of those projects include the 457 miles of track between Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and Boston’s South Station that has gotten more than $3 billion from the federal government for improvements. The system accommodates more than 2,000 passenger trains daily and 70 freight trains. The Northeast Corridor is responsible for 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest received a combined $780 million to make improvements and in the Midwest construction on a line from Chicago to St. Louis is underway as is work on a line to connect Chicago with Detroit and Pontiac, Mich.

Like Thompson at the Federal Railroad Association, United States High Speed Rail Association President and Chief Executive Officer Andy Kunz maintains Obama’s rail initiative is intact and doing well. Three governors returned the money, he said, but 44 others did not.

“I would say it’s alive and well and moving forward in a huge way in California,” Kunz said. “It will set the model for the rest of the country.”

 

Christine Jordan Sexton is a Tallahassee-based freelance reporter who has done correspondent work for the Associated Press, the New York Times, Florida Medical Business and a variety of trade magazines, including Florida Lawyer and National Underwriter.