U.S. High-Speed Rail: Despite Political Railroading, Supporters Optimistic

Posted on June 15, 2012 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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Upon taking his place in the White House in January 2009, President Barack Obama made public transportation, in particular a “National Rail Network,” a large part of his plan to jumpstart the economy, via his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). From part of that plan stemmed the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program, which saw the Obama Administration and Congress provide $10.1 billion and annual appropriations to provide rail access to new communities and improve the reliability, speed and frequency of existing lines.

The plan provided transportation options to more than 135 million Americans, or 44% of the population, with investments being made in a three-tiered passenger rail network that would strategically lay the groundwork for achieving the President’s vision of providing 80% of Americans with access to high-speed rail within 25 years:

  • Core Express services operating frequent trains at 125 mph to 250-plus mph in the nation’s densest and most populous regions.
  •  Regional services providing 90 mph to 125 mph service between mid-sized and large cities.
  • Emerging services (up to 90 mph) connecting communities to the passenger rail network and providing a foundation for future corridor development.

Much has happened since the HSIPR program was announced in the spring of 2009, with much of it being positive. However, the program has also been used in a new political climate as a rallying cry for wasteful spending and empty promises. METRO Magazine spoke to experts in the high-speed rail industry to get their perspective on what has happened over the last three years and what they believe will happen down the road.

New political climate
Obama’s HSIPR plan is the grandest transportation program since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. Much has changed since then, though, including a growing new political movement that endorses reduced government spending, cutting taxes, and reduction of the national debt and federal budget deficit. In fact, the Tea Party movement had an immediate impact in Wisconsin and Florida, which led to the governors in those respective states’ rejection of HSIPR funding.

“There were other more wasteful programs in their states they did not cancel or send federal money back for, but once they figured out they had a hot topic they could draw a lot of media attention to by taking this stand, they went for it and built momentum,” says Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, a national advocacy initiative. “And, that is part of the story of this program’s persecution in the national media.”

The negative perceptions of the program seemed to immediately take hold, especially with the climate in Congress being more contentious than it ever has been. Todorovich adds that the program was open to criticism and the negative press it received because of the Administration’s failure to properly communicate that the HSIPR program was really about more than just high-speed rail such as those systems already in place in Europe and Asia.

“For expedience sake, President Obama and Secretary of Transportation [Ray] LaHood would just call it the high-speed rail program when talking about it, so that opened them up for criticism that they were making these investments in the Chicago-to-St. Louis line, for instance, which is not a high-speed rail corridor, but still a very valuable investment,” she explains. “People felt the investments were being oversold or represented as something that they were not. That was a communications challenge that was not successfully met, and as a result, there was a lot of confusion and some mistrust about what the federal government was trying to do.”

Todorovich continues that perhaps breaking HSIPR into two separate programs — a high-speed rail program and a passenger rail improvement program that just provided grants for incremental upgrades, repairs and maintenance — would have been a more beneficial approach. The communications problem, she says, looks like it’s on the way to being fixed.

“In the new Senate MAP-21 bill, the references to the rail program call it ‘high performance rail.’ So, I think the policymakers in Congress, at least, are moving from this High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program name toward one that is meant to encompass both true high-speed rail and upgrades to create better performing rail services throughout the U.S.,” Todorovich explains.

In California where the wheels remain in motion on the only “true” high-speed rail system in the nation, both the local and national conservative factions have teamed with local opponents to fight against the building of the 520-mile, $68.4 billion high-speed line that will eventually run from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

“The best way of explaining it is the perception is distorted. It’s not based on facts, it’s based on politics and who will prevail, the conservatives or the liberals,” says Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and former chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “Rather than relying on the [negative] media, it’s better to rely on the facts generated by empirical research by the engineers, designers and the other researchers who are working on the project. [People] need to evaluate that data and come up with a conclusion.”

Diridon explains while the project has been on a roller coaster since its late 1990s inception, there has never been as concerted an effort against the project as there is now, thanks in part to the Tea Party’s ability to organize all of the opponents under one roof, so to speak.

“The Tea Party was successful in ending projects in a couple of states, and now, they are focusing on killing the project in California, because it is so tightly associated with Obama,” he says. “They are not basing their opinions on merit; all they want is to use it as a lever in the upcoming presidential election.”

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