Early Tuesday morning, Congressional leaders agreed on a 2011 budget package that zeros out funding for high-speed rail and rescinds $400 million in 2010 funding that remains unspent (transportation begins on p. 404). The package has the support of Senate Majority Leader Reid, House Speaker Boehner, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers.
The budget plan, now more than six months overdue, also cuts Amtrak’s budget by $80 million and rescinds 2010 highway funds that remain unspent by the states. But the federal government will continue to spend money on highways, transit, and Amtrak. The real significance is that the budget plan is probably the death knell for Obama’s ambitious plan to spend more than $500 billion extending high-speed rail to most major American cities.
History shows that rail projects are never truly dead as long as rail nuts and rail contractors work together to keep them alive. The Florida high-speed rail plan, for example, was approved by voters in 2000, rejected by voters in 2004, approved by the governor in 2009, and rejected by a new governor in 2011.
Since Obama’s own budgets never envisioned spending more than 10 percent of that amount during his administration, it is clear his strategy was to build a couple of demonstration lines, such as Tampa to Orlando, and hope they would spur political demands for a more complete system. That dream died when Florida Governor Rick Scott killed the Tampa-Orlando train.
With the Florida train dead and California train starved for funds, it is likely that Obama’s high-speed rail legacy will be limited to slightly faster trains in Illinois, North Carolina, and Washington state. These projects offer only slight speed gains over existing Amtrak service.
The Washington plan, for example, will spend at least $750 million to increase average Seattle-Portland speeds by 2.7 mph and increase the number of daily round trips from 5 to 7. The Illinois plan spends billions to increase average Chicago-St. Louis speeds by 5.7 mph and increase the daily trips from 5 to 8. State taxpayers will be obligated to subsidize these operations for 20 years or the states could be liable to repay part of the capital grants to the feds.