Senate Amendment Saves High Speed Rail -- Sort Of

(Photo (cc) by Flickr user .Timbo)

High speed rail got a last minute reprieve today, with a vote by a Senate committee to restore $100 million in spending on the program, a day after a subcommittee had zeroed out funding for bullet train projects.

But even with the Senate vote, future funding of America's high speed rail program remains in doubt as Congress shaves all government spending closer and closer to the bone.

It is a precipitous decline in fortunes for the high speed rail program, once a signature initiative of President Barack Obama. As recently as January -- just eight months ago -- the President expressed his intention to connect 80 percent of Americans to high speed rail by 2036.

Beginning in 2008, under the Passenger Rail Investment Act, or PRIA, Congress spent about $2 billion a year on the high speed rail program. But last year, Congress stopped appropriating money for high speed rail. It looked like a repeat was in the works this year after both the House of Representatives and a Senate Subcommittee, which appropriates  the US DOT's budget, voted to spend nothing on the program in the fiscal year beginning October 1.

The spending at issue doesn't include $8 billion in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus bill.

The amendment to restore $100 million in  funding, sponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ),  Mary Landrieu, (D-LA)and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), passed by voice vote Wednesday.

"This is a rail-unfriendly congress," said Petra Todorovich, of America 2050. "Inserting $100 million, that's just a gesture to keep the program alive -- which is good."

And Senator Frank Lautenberg, who had expressed pessimism after Tuesday's subcommittee vote, put a happy face on the full Senate's committee's voice vote to restore funding. “These high speed rail grants will help the United States create a 21st century transportation system," Lautenberg said in a statement. "We must make smart investments to expand high-speed rail in New Jersey and throughout the nation."

But Kerry O'Hare, Policy Director of the group Building America's Future, was less sanguine. "In my opinion, this could mean the end of the program."  She added, "it's just the slow chipping away of funding."

President Barack Obama also inserted $4 billion for high speed rail into the American Jobs Act. He's been stumping in swing counties for the bill, but there's no evidence yet Congress will pass the legislation, and in fact, it seems inclined to keep cutting away at programs like U.S. high speed rail.

Several governors, including the governors of Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, sent back their high speed rail-related stimulus grants, causing the U.S. DOT to redistribute much of that money to other projects, including a Northeast corridor high-speed rail project.

The stimulus money already in the pipeline will still be spent.

The full senate now votes on transportation spending for 2012, including high speed rail. After that, it goes to a conference committee, where it could still be eliminated entirely.