Thursday, February 17, 2011

High Speed Rail Projects Go Off the Rails

Florida is the latest state to reject federal funds for high speed rail projects since the November elections swept new new administrations in state capitals from Ohio and New Jersey to Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott rejected the $2 billion in federal funds for a high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando that would follow I-4 and wouldn't require major eminent domain condemnations because the land is already federally owned because he was concerned that Florida would be left holding the bag on cost overruns and then future operating costs for the rail line.
Mr. Scott is the third newly elected Republican governor to turn down a portion of the administration’s national rail system, joining John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Each of the three replaced governors who had lobbied for the funds.

Mr. Scott’s move comes a little more than a week after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. called for spending $53 billion on passenger trains and high-speed rail projects over the next six years as part of the administration’s goal of making high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years.

The 85-mile Tampa-to-Orlando segment, on which trains would travel as fast as 170 miles per hour, was to be the showpiece of that initiative — in part because the government already owned much of the right-of-way along the route, which would allow it to be built relatively quickly, and because the fast-moving train would contrast with slow-moving traffic along Interstate 4.

But critics — including the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which has questioned the White House’s rail strategy — say the need to link Tampa and Orlando pales in comparison with the need for high-speed rail serving places that have received relatively little in federal economic stimulus funds for transportation projects, including the busy Northeast rail corridor between Washington and Boston.

Mr. Scott said at a news conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday that cost overruns related to the Tampa-to-Orlando line could leave Florida taxpayers stuck with a $3 billion tab. Further, he said that if the state deemed the project too costly after having started construction, it would be required to return the $2.4 billion to the federal government. He also said he believed that estimates of riders and revenue for the rail line were too optimistic, and that state taxpayers would have been left to pay for subsidies to keep the line running because it would be unable to pay for itself.

Mr. Scott said that although one study had projected that three million people would use the Tampa-to-Orlando line annually, only 3.2 million people rode Amtrak’s Acela trains in the Northeast Corridor in 2010, even though the population centers along the Acela route have as many as eight times the population of the area that would be served by the proposed Florida line.
The latter argument may be is a sound one, and brings into question overly rosy revenue/ridership projections to sustain a project even though there isn't nearly the population density to support the ridership projections.

However, that isn't the worst of this situation.

The Florida rejection of high speed rail funds again sets out the failure of the US to present a coherent and fiscally sustainable national high speed rail network and passenger rail system that provides high speed rail on designated corridors that actually make sense.

Forcing states to cover cost overruns makes little sense and doesn't actually force Amtrak or the other agencies involved in the projects take steps to reduce costs and hold down potential overruns. It simply shifts the fiscal burden.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie killed the ARC project because New Jersey would be saddled with the cost overruns, which New Jersey taxpayers simply can't afford. The federal government refused to step in to cover the overruns or even to get New York to pony up potential funds to cover those potential overruns.

That ARC project has now been superseded with an even more expensive Gateway tunnel project under Amtrak auspices, but there isn't a funding mechanism in place to see it happen.

Now that Florida has relinquished its $2 billion in funding, along with Ohio, those funds should go to build out the Gateway project, or at a minimum, use the necessary funds to build the Portal Bridge replacement, which is a major bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor. That project should go ahead without further delay regardless of whatever stance is taken about the Hudson River tunnel projects and their relative merits.

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