Who loves high-speed rail? The $8-billion question

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When we went to bed last night, people who track transit spending were in agreement there would be $1 to $2 billion allocated for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus bill — and a document from the conference negotiations illustrates that. When we woke up, the wires were moving a story that said high-speed rail would get $8 billion. How is it possible that high-speed rail did so well, when everything else was getting cut? The answer goes about as high as you can go...

How much funding is high-speed rail getting? I was paying attention, because Walter Magnusen from Atlanta asked us to. In fact, lots of people are paying attention to transit funding: governors, mayors, environmentalists, transportation groups. One of them unearthed a document from the House-Senate negotiations. Under a column of numbers labeled "conf proposal" there's a number, heavily blacked out, with an exclamation point beside it. To the left, with a single line through it out, is "8.0." And to the right, it says "1-2," or $1-$2 billion for high speed rail. That seemed to make sense, because the House had voted on $1.1 billion, the Senate $3.1 million. But the first official word, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, put the number at $8 billion.

Not that there's anything wrong with high-speed rail — almost every environmentalist and planner thinks it's a great idea. But it grew while transit, which also serves metro areas, got shaved from $12 billion in the House plan to $8.4 billion in the Senate's plan. And another $5.5 billion pool that could have been spent on transit got knocked down to a billion and a half.

But high-speed rail quadrupled.

How could this happen? Just about everyone key to this negotiation is for high-speed rail.

Let's start with Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, who represents Nevada. According to news wires, Reid's office "issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money." This was thrilling news to Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commssion. "This fits right into what Obama has been talking about as far as infrastructure projects," Aguilera said, when reached by telephone. "It creates job, it's good for the environment."

In fact, he said, it could move as many people as 55 Boeing 747's per hour from Orange County to Clark County. And when he met with Reid personally "about two weeks ago," he said Reid was supportive but wouldn't show his cards, even though he'd helped get $45 million earmarked for the project a few years ago.

Reid's office didn't send us the statement the Associated Press said "he'd issued" on the Las Vegas-LA train. Instead, a spokesman sent the following email:

"The plan includes $8 billion for 'high-speed rail/passenger rail grants to states.' The state rail grants will be prioritized for high-speed rail projects. The Secretary will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds, however, the proposed Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail project would be eligible to receive funds, as would the Northeast corridor. This was a major priority for President Obama and Sen. Reid as a conferee supported it."

Let's also remember that from Reid's perspective, Obama owed him one. At his news conference on Monday night, the president raised the specter of corporate junkets to Las Vegas, which got a blowback from Las Vegas officials. Reid himself felt the need to set the record straight. "I have spoken with President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, about the president's remarks," Reid said earlier this week on the Senate floor. "He made it clear to me that the president's criticism was aimed at the potential use of taxpayer funds for junkets, and in no way reflects his thoughts about any one particular city."

Emanuel, as it turns out, is also a big proponent of high-speed rail, and waxes enthusiastic about it in his book "The Plan." So, it turns out, is the president, who spoke of it with characteristic passion during the crucial Indiana primary last year, just as gas prices were going through the roof: "The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service," he said in Beech Grove just before the May 5 Indiana primary. "One of the things I have been talking bout for awhile is high-speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities; Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis." As Senator Reid said, "a major priority for President Obama."

There's one other key person who cares about high-speed rail, someone who's crucial to all these negotiations: Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., through which the Northeast corridor train line runs. "He's a fan," confirmed spokeswoman Kate Kelly. Indeed, Specter introduced a bill with Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., last year that would fund high speed rail. To the tune of $8 billion.

So far, though, Walter, there are no plans, so far as I can tell, for a high-speed train to Atlanta.

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