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Obama's $53 Billion Rail Plan: Applause, Jeers, and Many Unanswered Questions

Tuesday, February 08, 2011 - 05:33 PM

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)   The Obama Administration has announced its largest and most specific high-speed rail plan to date.  In proposing $53 billion for high speed rail in the next five years, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation of Ray LaHood began to put some muscle behind the administration's promise to made high speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans by 2036.  Up to now, the administration has invested just $10 billion, and $8 billion of that was in the economic stimulus.

This level of spending would be a significant jump -- and comes despite Republican criticism that high speed rail is a waste of money and would serve relatively few Americans.

Petra Todorovich, the high speed rail expert at the planning group America 2050,  said in an email:  "We've been waiting a long time for the Administration's surface transportation bill proposal, and this is the first taste it it."

Under the plan announced today, $8 billion would come from the budget.  The additional $45 billion could come from transportation re-authorization bill, though the administration isn't quite  saying. Still Todorovich and other planning groups saw the announcement as significant.  She sent over the following bullets.

"This shows the administration sees the high-speed rail piece as one of the most sellable and exciting aspects of the transportation program and thus has preceded their larger proposal with this announcement," Todorovich wrote.

"The administration has signaled high-speed and passenger rail should be part of the surface transportation bill which has never happened before," she added."  "Former Minnesota Representative (Jim) Oberstar had proposed this as well, but the Administration has been silent on it until now."

Todorovich's response was echoed by many groups, including US PIRG and Smart Growth America, who attended the announcement.

The administration is still being silent on some issues -- neither the Department of Transportation nor the Vice President's office would offer details of funding beyond that $8 billion would be included in the forthcoming budget. Administration officials would not say which projects would be funded -- -or how  -- given that the Highway Trust Fund is broke.

But the plan indicated a detailed level of thinking about how to prioritize corridors, including "core express," "regional," and "emerging."

But while advocates like Todorovich cheered,  House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL)  issued one of his most sharply-worded statements to date against the plan.  “This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said in a statement.  In the past, Mica has applauded high speed rail in concept, while criticizing the Administration's approach. “Rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested corridor in the nation and the only corridor owned by the federal government, the Administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects,” he added.

Mica said he would be investigating how previous funding decisions on high speed rail had been made.

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