Northeastern states ask LaHood for Florida’s rail money

Last Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott turned down $2 billion in federal grants for high speed rail. The Governor cited potential cost over runs and paying down deficits as reasons for his rejection – a decision which made national news and added to the debate on budget and infrastructure issues. The declaration also led Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood to give the state an additional week to find a way to utilize the funding but any option will still require the Governor’s approval. In light of this, states across the northeast including Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island and Maryland have sent letters to Secretary LaHood asking for the funding to go to rail projects in their states if transportation advocates in Florida are unsuccessful.

When it comes to mass transit, the northeast comes closest to offering the same level of passenger rail service enjoyed throughout Europe and Asia. Passenger rail services keep people connected with relative ease from Virginia to Massachusetts. These rail systems are further supported by subways, regional rail services like MetroNorth and extensive bus networks that offer affordable transportation options and cut down on congestion. These states are now working to expand rail services further and deepen regional connectivity with federal funding grants like those offered to the Florida.

With that money up for potentially grabs, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy wants a portion to go to expand the Springfield-Hartford-New Haven rail line.

Taking a different view of high speed rail, Governor Malloy said in a statement, “everyone knows that effective transportation is crucial to keeping the economy moving. The better the transportation infrastructure, the better positioned the economy will be to recover, prosper, and create new jobs, and that’s why it is so critical for us to capitalize on the opportunity before us. This money is now up for grabs, and we’re not going to waste a second. We know our project is a strong contender, and we’re going to do our best to get additional funds from our federal partners.”

In a separate letter, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley asked for Florida’s money to be used to complete the B&P Tunnel replacement in Baltimore and the BWI Rail Station project. In addition to requesting funding to complete the tunnel and station projects, O’Malley also sought investments for three additional projects that were submitted as part of the original grant competition. These three projects would provide track safety improvements and increase passenger and freight capacity throughout Maryland and the northeast corridor.

Senators for Rhode Island and New York have also asked the Secretary for a cut of Florida’s money should it be re-appropriated. On Sunday, Senator Bill Nelson offered up a measure that would potentially provide high speed rail in Florida at no cost to the state but no formal plan has been created yet.

Last year, the US Conference of Mayors conducted a study which showed that if implemented, high-speed rail would increase annual revenues by billions while reducing CO2 emissions by 2.8 million tons a year.

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Stephen Peteritas

BAH this isn’t where we need high speed rail. The rail system is already pretty efficient in the North East. I don’t want to be discriminatory but we need rail in the bigger area states.

Darrel W. Cole

Begin active on Twitter (@transPR) and focused on transportation, there was much good discussion around Florida Guv’s rejection of HSR funds, and there are more than northeast states interested in Florida’s money! California especially told the feds just what they did when another state turned down the HSR funding…. “give it all to us cause we are ready to spend in on actual construction!” For sure, there are more needs than funding right now even with Florida’s bailing out.

One of the perception challenges is that there is much funding going out, but the visual results won’t appear for many, many years. The reason is there has to be a variety of steps undertaken first, such as rail line useage and ownership, environmental reviews, financial reviews and the like.

John C. Heinley, P.E.

Instead, how about NOT spending the money. Not in Florida, not in Connecticut, not in California, not anywhere on High Speed Rail. Rail is absolutely a vital component of our transportation network, but High Speed Rail should not be an excuse to bankrupt ourselves. If High Speed Rail would increase annual revenues by billions, would not Warren Buffet and BNSF be pursuing it? Or, does it simply direct billions in tax dollars to the construction of the facility which benefits the recipients in the short term? How much revenue does it generate after the initial frenzy of spending? Or, is it at least effective and worthy of some ongoing subsidy?

Given our countries financial state I think we need to rethink how we spend tax-dollars, not spending them just because they’re available. We should be able to point to real long-term benefits and returns. We should be able to say, “This project will cost X, and pay for itself in Y years, based on reduced expenditures here and increased tax revenue from A, B, C, …, there.” If governors are protecting their states from cost over-runs and other risks from High Speed Rail, or other projects, maybe that should be telling us something.

Darrel W. Cole

The points John brings up are similar to what many in the public think as well. A major point, however, is that new and improved highways (aside from toll roads), sidewalks, bus service etc. don’t make money either and we still invest in them. Investment in transportation is simply not a money maker, but the fact is infrastructure keeps our economy and nation strong. Rail is but one component of a transportation system that is at this point unbalanced as far as rail service, but for sure has a great many needs. Many of the passenger rail projects that are to receive funding are actually not going to be high speed rail like California. Many will start out with slower speeds (for less investment) but the opportunity and option will be there to improve the infrastructure for higher speeds.

John C. Heinley, P.E.

I think the public recognizes when they receive real benefits from a transportation investment, even if it doesn’t appear to increase tax revenue – but we need to be honest about what the costs and benefits are.

Washington D.C.’s Metro took some considerable investment, I presume, and whether or not it requires ongoing subsidy I don’t know. But it appears to be effective. I rode it for a week and can’t imagine the trouble I would have had trying to find parking for a rental car, etc. In the small town where I live I ride transit every day and am willing to pay more in my monthly pass. Even here, if only to keep some who ride the bus from being behind the wheel of a car but still able to go to work, the subsidy is worthwhile.

I’ve seen a number of rail-improvements which make both freight and passenger service go faster and easier. Some can even be shown to pay for themselves (thinking of a freight trench-corridor in Los Angeles). I’ve heard about rail-congestion in the vicinity of Chicago that can slow down freight going across the country. Could an investment there, in partnership with the freight railroads and passenger lines, make improvements that would have an actual positive return?

What I’d like to see in budget proposals (at least for transportation, hopefully elsewhere) is an acknowledgement that we only have so much revenue, that we have considered a number of project or program needs (as opposed to ‘stimulus’ needs) and have selected our priorities with these in mind. We’re not spending just for the purpose of stimulating the economy, we’re addressing prioritized needs and staying within a sustainable budget.

I don’t go out and buy a Cadillac because the Chinese or French neighbors have a fancy car, but instead see what I can afford and still get the job done. If that means having to use J-B Weld to hold my Suburban together for awhile longer, then I’ll do it (and I have). And that is something the public probably

Darrel W. Cole

I think the transportation industry has been shouting of the rooftops about the limited revenues and the cuts being made across the board, from staff, to programs, to projects. These impacts have not only meant projects have not been done, but jobs in the vital construction industry and elsewhere have taken loses. If not for ARRA, the damage to limited revenues would be felt even greater. The transportation industry in recent years has certainly prioritized more so now than ever on funding multiple modes of transportation, rather than being highway-heavy. And, agree or not, part of that focus is to give more options to the public with passenger rail transportation. Passenger rail and many other transportation modes help address real needs of transporting people through means other than vehicles. A strong transportation infrastructure with multiple modes of transporting goods and people also means a strong economy, and they do impact one another. When businesses locate to certain areas, one of the main things they look for is adequate infrastructure not only so their people can get to work, but for goods to be delivered. The honest answer about the costs of investing in any mode of transportation is it will not and has not paid for itself. But in every mode, there are benefits.