Passenger Rail

There were lots of transportation-related headlines to take away from Tuesday’s election: The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee going down to defeat and what it might mean for authorization legislation… The future of high-speed rail put in doubt by the election of three new Republican governors opposed to rail projects… And a somewhat mixed message from voters on revenues for transportation. Although it will likely take a long time to sort it all out, here are some initial thoughts.

The 2009 election cycle was a much quieter one than the one we’re experiencing now if you’ll recall. Whereas this year, the U.S. will elect or re-elect 39 Governors, last year there were just two high-profile gubernatorial races. But the year since the 2009 election has been anything but quiet for the men elected governor in New Jersey and Virginia last November. And just as it played a role during last year’s campaign, transportation has been a key issue for both chief executives during their first year in office. As we wait to see who will occupy governors’ mansions next year, it may be worth pondering how the experiences of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell could shape how their future colleagues tackle transportation challenges in the years ahead.

High-speed rail is one of the Obama administration’s major transportation priorities. Last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $8 billion aimed at developing high-speed intercity passenger rail service along 13 new corridors and this year Congress added an additional $2.3 billion. But the outcome of some key state elections next week could determine how fast that train arrives, if at all.

On Tuesday, MIPRC Chair Rep. Elaine Nekritz (Illinois) testified on behalf of the commission before the rail subcommittee of the U.S. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. The subcommittee was holding a field hearing in Chicago on High-Speed Rail Grants Awarded under the Recovery Act.

Seven Midwestern states are receiving assistance from the $8 billion High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program (part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) to upgrade four federally designated high-speed rail corridors.

State eNews Issue #39 | February 3, 2010
Even though 40 states and Washington, D.C., competed for a piece of more than $8 billion available in the Recovery Act for high-speed rail, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, only three states walked away big winners. California, Florida and Illinois were the only states awarded more than $1 billion each in funding Jan. 28 for fast trains.

The Council of State Governments recommends that states work cooperatively where appropriate to enter into multistate agreements and interstate compacts to enhance the potential for federal high-speed rail funding.

Even as high-speed rail advanced tremendously in parts of Asia and Europe, rail travel in the United States has languished as the American love affair with the automobile, the impressive interstate highway system and affordable air travel ensured that America’s rail system did not progress into the 21st century. However, this scenario is in the process of undergoing a radical transformation as a result of efforts initiated by the Obama Administration to include $13 billion ($8 billion in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) along with an additional $5 billion spread over the next five years) as seed money to fund up to 11 high-speed rail corridors connecting densely populated areas of the country.

The transportation needs of this country are growing. There is increased congestion, an increased demand for public transportation and increasing fuel costs. This increased demand on the transportation system has led to an increased strain on states’ budgets as they also try to fund escalating costs for healthcare and education.