As President Doubles Down on High-Speed Rail, House Republicans Ready for a Fight; Debate on Authorization Waits in the Wings

Vice President Joe Biden announced today a proposal to spend $53 billion over the next six years to improve existing rail corridors and designate new tracks for high-speed trains. The Obama administration wants to start with an $8 billion down payment included in the President’s proposed 2012 budget, which is expected to be released Monday. But as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee prepares to host a series of field hearings on federal transportation policy starting Monday in West Virginia, Republicans on the panel say the administration’s high-speed rail plans are out of step with what the country needs to be doing.

The President’s plan, which Biden announced at a train station in Philadelphia alongside U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, builds on Obama’s State of the Union promise to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail in 25 years. A White House press release said the funds will give states long-term certainty to start planning rail routes. It would follow $10.5 billion the administration has already paid out for high-speed rail—including $8 billion in Recovery Act funds and $2.5 billion in the 2010 budget.

“As President Obama said in his State of the Union, there are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation—one of which is infrastructure,” Biden said. “As a long time Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

The $8 billion proposed for the 2012 budget would be used to develop or improve three different types of rail corridors:

  • Core Express – These corridors will form the backbone of the rail system, with electrified trains on dedicated tracks going 125 to 250 miles per hour or faster.
  • Regional – These corridors will carry trains at speeds of 90 to 125 miles per hour and form the foundation of future high-speed service.
  • Emerging – These corridors will carry trains traveling at up to 90 miles per hour and will connect to the larger national network.

But House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster immediately attacked the proposal in a joint press release. Mica, who has criticized the administration before for spreading high-speed rail dollars too thin, said committing $53 billion in the same manner would be like “giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.”

As he has in the past, Mica criticized the grant decisions of the Federal Rail Administration and Amtrak’s lack of efficiency in managing existing routes. Mica, who generally supports development of high-speed rail, believes funding should be concentrated on the heavily congested and populated Northeast Corridor where it has the best chance of being successful.

“The Administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects,” Mica said. “What the Administration touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere.”

Shuster added, “The Administration continues to fail in attracting private investment, capital and the experience to properly develop and cost-effectively operate true high-speed rail. They have also ignored my provision in law that calls for competition on money-losing Amtrak routes.”

Shuster said the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee plans to investigate how previous funding decisions were made and routes were selected.

“I am concerned that without appropriate controls to ensure the most worthy projects are the ones that receive funding, high-speed rail funding could become another political grab bag for the President,” he said.

Authorization & Transportation Investment in the Spotlight

Also on the horizon for the committee is a series of field hearings around the country that are designed to inform the drafting of a new long-term authorization of federal transportation programs. The first hearing takes place Monday in Beckley, West Virginia. At least a dozen more are planned between Feb. 17 and 25. A hearing in Los Angeles will also include members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, another panel with jurisdiction over authorization legislation.

A press release from Mica’s office said his committee will use the field hearings to seek input on “how to consolidate and improve the performance of programs, cut government red tape and streamline the project delivery process, increase private sector investment in our infrastructure, identify creative financing alternatives, and other ideas for writing the legislation.”

The first field hearing takes place on the same day President Obama is expected to release his 2012 budget, which may include his own vision for a six-year transportation authorization bill. But with Congress looking to make drastic cuts in domestic spending this year and a lack of political support for raising the federal gas tax, that vision is likely to come under intense scrutiny in the months ahead.

Besides a tight window to get a bill done this year, lawmakers also must navigate a cumbersome committee structure that further complicates things, as a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report pointed out.

Having numerous committees involved in transportation policy and funding has “made it more difficult for Congress to develop broad-based policies that cut across committee jurisdictions or to enact proposals to consolidate programs or devolve programmatic authority to states as those actions might upset existing power relationships and require the consent of several committees and committee chairs,” the report said.

The committees and their areas of jurisdiction break down like this:

  • House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee—Programmatic and funding distribution matters.
  • House Ways & Means Committee—Tax and Highway Trust Fund issues.
  • Senate Environment & Public Works Committee—Programmatic and funding distribution issues for highways.
  • Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee—Transit issues
  • Senate Finance Committee—Highway Trust Fund issues.
  • Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee—Highway safety and railroad issues.

Bridging the Transportation Funding Gap

Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure needs continue to grow and the amount being spent to maintain and upgrade it continues to fall short of what is needed, as reiterated in a recent report from the American Association of State Transportation Officials’ Center for Excellence in Project Finance. The report takes its cue from the finding of a congressional commission that the gap between current revenues available for surface transportation and capital needs each year is $137 billion. Over the period from 2008 to 2035, revenues generated under current policies provide enough resources to meet only 44 percent of the requirements to maintain the current system and only 36 percent of the costs to improve the system, the commission said.

AASHTO’s report is the product of a forum held last September for members of Congress and their staff, including Mica and others. It considers a broad array of existing and potential funding sources and financing tools for transportation. Among the ideas proffered:

  • conversion of the current gallon-based excise tax on gasoline to a sales tax levied proportionately to the price of fuel;
  • more efficient use of Federal aid highway apportionments to leverage every dollar of Federal investment;
  • value capture-based public-private partnerships;
  • use of the tax code to accelerate financing of transportation investments; and
  • expansion of existing programs such as the TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) program.

Targeting Investments Key to Tapping Transportation for Economic Recovery

While the funding and financing of transportation are likely to get a lot of attention in the weeks ahead, many believe the targeting of our investments is just as important. Just as House Republicans want to look at how high-speed rail dollars are spent, others say the kinds of transportation projects that receive Federal funding overall deserve to receive greater scrutiny.

A report last month from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project said that while transportation investments can accelerate economic recovery, they must be “well targeted.” The report, entitled “Strengthening Connections Between Transportation Investments and Economic Growth,”  concludes that no new funds should be allocated to existing transportation programs that provide only “questionable” job creation, unclear long-term benefits or if the programs are an effort only to increase short-term employment.

“Funding for transportation infrastructure that is intended to create jobs should focus on investments that are ‘shovel-ready’ AND provide long-term benefits,” the report said. Moreover, “federal transportation policy should be flexible on the ‘how’ while being specific about outcomes.”

Further Reading:

Associated Press: Obama to call for $53B for high-speed rail

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Transportation funding faces uncertain future in Congress