Gimme Gimme Gimme

The Department of Transportation has received 278 applications for high-speed rail stimulus funds. Not surprisingly, the various proposals add up to far more than the $8 billion that is available for such projects.

Six New England states want the entire $8 billion for themselves. North Carolina wants $6 billion. Oregon & Washington are hoping for $2.1 billion. Texas wants a modest $1.7 billion, mainly for planning 200-mph trains between San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston.

That’s almost $18 billion so far, and this barely scratches the surface of the proposals.

Some news reports are less specific about what states are requesting, probably because most states have done less planning than some. Midwestern states estimate their plans will cost $9.6 billion, and the governor of Illinois promises to meet with other governors soon to flesh out a proposal. Pennsylvania wants an unspecified amount of money for lines from Scranton to New York and Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Florida wants the feds to fund an unspecified share of the $2.4 billion for a 125-mph line from Tampa to Orlando, even though the environmental impact statement for the line found that “the environmentally preferred alternative is the No Build Alternative.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles has been designated an official corridor, which must be disappointing for advocates of a line from Denver to El Paso. Congress in 1998 authorized the department to identify 11 corridors, and up to now it had only designated 10. A private company says it can build a profitable high-speed line from Vegas to the outskirts of L.A., but it may apply for federal loans to do so.

As the Antiplanner predicted, many people are unsatisfied with Obama’s moderate-speed trains (averaging 65-70 mph) when California is planning to build true high-speed trains (averaging 140-145 mph). Oklahoma wants a 200-mph line from Tulsa to Oklahoma City that will cost an estimated $2.0 billion; no word on how much of that the state wants from the feds. The Texas proposal is also for true high-speed trains, and some in the Midwest want a 200-mph train from Chicago to St. Louis costing an estimate $11.5 billion — more for 300 miles than moderate-speed rail is expected to cost for the entire 3,000-mile Midwest network.

The good news is that there really isn’t any money to pay for these proposals. The way our economy is going, the $8 billion in stimulus funds may end up being the last federal dollars available for rail. Many in California, which faces a $42 billion deficit, are backing off from proposals to build true high-speed rail there. Of course, there are always some who think rail lines should be built no matter what the cost and how few people will ride them.

Meanwhile, Amtrak has used the first part of its $1.3 billion share of stimulus to refurbish a 27-year-old passenger car. That ought to stimulate the economy!

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13 thoughts on “Gimme Gimme Gimme

  1. K-Dog

    Midwestern states estimate their plans will cost $9.6 billion, and the governor of Illinois promises to meet with other governors soon to flesh out a proposal.

    Which begs the question: If they can get together to construct a regional proposal, why can’t they also a develop a regional funding plan at the same time? If the plan makes economic sense, surely it can be supported at that level. (Hey, just answered my own question!)

  2. Dan

    Speaking of lining up, can you believe these Public Works Depts lining up for stimulus funds to repave roads and repair bridges? Some cojones there.

    DS

  3. Francis King

    “A private company says it can build a profitable high-speed line from Vegas to the outskirts of L.A., but it may apply for federal loans to do so.”

    Ouch. In good times, the taxpayer subsidises and guarantees the loan. In bad times, the company defaults, leaving the government with a railway that it thought it had got rid of.

  4. Borealis

    I have to question the value of high speed trains over regular trains that don’t stop very often. I would ride trains much more often if they averaged 70 mph by not stopping very much (of course, assuming they stop where I want to get on or off). That sure beats driving and probably beats flying for 500 miles.

    Could someone with command of the data figure out how much it costs to raise the average speed of a train from 70 mph to 140 mph per passenger?

  5. K-Dog

    From Borealis: Could someone with command of the data figure out how much it costs to raise the average speed of a train from 70 mph to 140 mph per passenger?

    I can’t give you a dollar figure, but trains running at that speed would require their own dedicated line of tracks that would not be available for use by any other rail transport (e.g., freight trains). So consider having to acquire land to lay the track, the laying and maintaining of said track, and the purchase and operation of high-speed trains (that carry nothing but passengers) as the minimum total cost. As Mr. O’Toole has pointed out, the Japanese spent as much per capita on their high-speed rail network as the U.S. spent on constructing the entire interstate highway system. And since the price of this hypothetical system has to be thought of in terms of passenger miles only (with no freight carriage to help defray costs), ticket prices on such a system – if truly reflecting the cost of building and operating the network – would be outrageously high. (Think Concorde!)

    Cheers!

  6. Frank

    “So consider having to acquire land to lay the track, the laying and maintaining of said track, and the purchase and operation of high-speed trains (that carry nothing but passengers) as the minimum total cost.”

    It seems likely that the jump from 70 to 140 would also result in higher fuel costs and consumption per passenger mile.

    Unless, that is, they run off magical fairy dust.

  7. K-Dog

    Unless, that is, they run off magical fairy dust.

    I believe magic fairy dust is a core element of the green fuels initiative – I’m sure subsidies are already flowing to it.

    As regards fuel costs (which I consider a part of operation costs), I think this is more of an open question. I don’t know what the current state of technology is in locomotion. But it brings up another critical factor, which is the question of future efficiency. The turnover rate for rail technology is decades longer than for either automotive or air travel; it takes many, many years more for new rail technology to be fully implemented versus other major forms of transport. Thus one must compare today’s trains with tomorrow’s cars and planes when considering fuel costs.

  8. Borealis

    There is a scenario where high speed rail may be efficient. If the U.S. and other countries are ever serious about greenhouse gas emissions, which is said to require reductions of 80% in a few decades, then new rail lines would make sense if they are electrically powered and non-carbon generating electricity was available in surplus.

    Can high speed rail be electrically powered? Is that the plan for the current applications to DOT?

  9. the highwayman

    Francis King said:
    “A private company says it can build a profitable high-speed line from Vegas to the outskirts of L.A., but it may apply for federal loans to do so.”

    Ouch. In good times, the taxpayer subsidises and guarantees the loan. In bad times, the company defaults, leaving the government with a railway that it thought it had got rid of.

    THWM: For this area it would be better just to restore regular Amtrak service between L.A. & S.L.C via L.V.

  10. the highwayman

    Dan said: Speaking of lining up, can you believe these Public Works Depts lining up for stimulus funds to repave roads and repair bridges? Some cojones there.

    THWM: You see Dan, socialism for roads is good, because they are roads.

    What else do you expect from the Autoplanner?

  11. John Thacker

    THWM: You see Dan, socialism for roads is good, because they are roads.

    What else do you expect from the Autoplanner?

    Stawman, both of you, Dan and THWM. Especially considering that the Antiplanner just had a post saying that highways should be funded by efficient user fees, and that tolls would be even better than gas taxes because they efficiently tax congestion.

    Yes, the stimulus (like the 2008 highway bill) inappropriately spent General Funds on the Interstate Highway System for construction and maintenance, unlike all previous federal funding. I oppose that. So did the Antiplanner. Your charges of hypocrisy are utterly false. Why don’t you try blaming the Democratic Congress for the historic subsidy to roads? Right, because you’re so willing to get crumbs for rail subsidies that you’ll overlook road subsidies and pretend that it’s the fault of someone who opposes both.

    Could someone with command of the data figure out how much it costs to raise the average speed of a train from 70 mph to 140 mph per passenger?

    Very complicated question with no easy answer. However, an average speed of 140 mph per passenger by FRA regulation is going to require not only entirely grade separated track (no railroad crossings) but a brand new passenger rail line entirely separate from the existing freight line. In order to get high speeds, generally you would need a line with less sharp grades and curves than existing lines anyway. (It’s rather pointless to have a line with a top speed that it almost never reaches because it’s always having to slow down in curves.) Most estimates are about $20-$50 million per mile. It’s more expensive in places like, say, Harrisburg-Pittsburgh, where the line would have to cross the mountains and lots of tunnels would be built, than in flat areas. It also depends on the environmental and planning restrictions, cost of acquiring right of way, etc.

    It’s an order of magnitude cheaper to upgrade to moderate speed 110-125 mph (likely average speeds, 70-85 mph) trains using diesel. The next step is electrification, which is still cheaper than entire new high speed rights of way.

    Some of these states have been spending their own money on upgrading the rails and are trying to accelerate projects. Other states were just throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, and have refused to spend their own money but will apply for free money. Some of the states it seems applied for projects that don’t even fit the requirements.

  12. Dan

    My only argument (implied) on this thread is that Stimuli are going to projects that are already funded (according to many on this site), which is right in line with the title of this post. So you are accusing Randal of strawmanning.

    I am all for charging for VMT/TPD/PAYD, and insurance (like my insurance in Yurp) according to my vehicle’s performance and my registration was based partially on hp. All these will drive down VMT, emissions, congestion, and foster efficiencies.

    DS

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