Advocates for high-speed rail lobby for more after $8 billion in stimulus


Transit groups and urban Democrats want the Senate to accept the $4 billion for high-speed rail projects that the House included in its version of the spending bill for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

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Senate appropriators thus far have allocated just $1.2 billion for high-speed rail projects, choosing instead to spread more money to other types of transit programs. The Senate level is closer to the White House’s $1 billion request for high-speed rail. The spending bill has yet to go to conference committee.

High-speed rail has already seen a significant boost in support over past years. High-speed rail projects received between $30 million and $50 million annually in spending bills but earlier this year received an $8 billion infusion in the economic stimulus package.

The Obama administration, which had pushed lawmakers to fund high-speed rail projects in the stimulus, is now considering applications for the money from 24 states. California has asked for $4.7 billion for a high-speed link between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Florida has asked for $2.5 billion for a new line between Tampa and Orlando.

The total cost of all the projects that have applied for funds is about $50 billion.

Transportation advocates say the high number of applications is a sign of interest in high-speed rail and shows that more funding is needed to build a modern rail network. How much money Congress sets aside for high-speed rail projects for 2010 will tell the rest of the country how serious it is about high-speed rail, said John Krieger, transportation policy analyst for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

“If they were to fund it in a big way, that will help keep the momentum going,” Krieger said. “If they were to do a much smaller allocation, there’s a chance this is a trend rather than the kind of legacy the Obama administration hopes it will be.”

Krieger added it would take around $100 billion from the federal government to build a high-speed rail network.

A coalition of rail proponents, including U.S. PIRG, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Transportation for America, has been lobbying senators to support the higher funding level, arguing it will encourage more private-sector investment and create thousands of new jobs.

“When the market opportunity is big, there will be a big reaction from the private sector,” said Arthur Guzzetti, vice president for policy at APTA. “If [the funding level is] a small incremental thing, you will get a commensurate response.”

Top Senate appropriators have sought to spread money around to other transportation sectors.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the sponsor of the Senate’s Transportation appropriations bill, took a “balanced approach” to funding transit projects, providing more funding than the House for highways, railroad safety and multimodal grants, which can be applied to different types of transit projects, said Alex Glass, Murray’s spokesman.

“We also need to improve the conditions of our roads and bridges, to invest in public transportation and to create an overall transportation network,” Glass said.

Both Glass and an aide to Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, noted that the Senate’s level of $1.2 billion for high-speed rail is still 20 percent higher than the president’s request.

House members have shown bipartisan support for high-speed rail funding. In July, they defeated an amendment sponsored by Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) to cut the funding for high-speed rail projects to $1 billion, the amount originally requested in President Barack Obama’s budget. The amendment lost, 284-136.

In the upper chamber, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called on Murray and Bond to meet the House funding level. Schumer and other Empire State lawmakers have championed a high-speed rail link in upstate New York.

“Fully funding this program is critical to expanding public transportation infrastructure in the United States, which in turn helps the country to mitigate some of the environmental, energy and congestion issues that plague our roads and airspace,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Bond and Murray.