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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Midterms and Rail 2

California
Jerry Brown's election means that there won't be any delays to the high speed route. It still remains to be seen if the Peninsula NIMBYs become just as irrelevant as Meg Whitman. Even though the feds mandated that recent money that it handed California be spent on the Central Valley alignment, the San Francisco-San Jose segment must also go ahead.

Whatever issues that the Authority may have with Caltrans and other rail advocates must be worked out because it the HSR route can save a lot of money along certain segments. The Tehachapi Pass segment could see the shared use of HSR and San Joaquin trains. Even if Amtrak has to switch engines in Bakersfield, cooperation may be needed to save costs for everybody. A rights deal between the Authority and Caltrans can be the way to go as many as three or four rail operators may end up using HSR tracks in the next decade.

Also, there is no reason for the HSR route to have separate right of way in Los Angeles.

Florida
Late in the campaign, Governor-elect Rick Scott backtracked from his initial stance of opposing the Tampa-Orlando route. He narrowly edged out fast train supporter Alex Sink last week. It's interesting to see what will happen next since the Obama Administration gave the 84-mile route more stimulus money--like $800 million more-- late last month.

If the project continues without delay, its western terminus will be a bit empty since voters in Tampa defeated a sales tax for a new light rail system and bus expansion. That's important because the planned Tampa Bay Intermodal Center is supposed to house high speed rail, intercity buses, express buses, and light rail.

If there is a delay, Scott and Florida officials should take my recommendation to heart by spinning off the HSR route to JR Central and letting the DOT provide a more suitable system for the Sunshine State.

Representative John Mica now thinks that the HSR route should be limited to the Orlando area. I already knew that the Express route will be nothing more than a tourist route but Mica is taking it to another extreme and may be unwittingly reducing the chances that the route makes a profit, especially if the Japanese (or Chinese or South Koreans) build the route by themselves.

National
Almost two years ago, passenger rail advocates were finally jubilant as the president gave a total of $16.5 billion to Amtrak and high speed rail in the economic stimulus. It was, quite frankly, the first time since the mid 1960s that most of these people could breathe and talk about how passenger rail will thrive once again in America.

Last Tuesday was the worst thing that could have happened to them because many of these same people have now gone back into survival mode, mostly thanks to pols like Walker and Kasich and also the anti-government Tea Party.

I, however, will stand by what I said in July because
  1. Democrats will still run the Senate
  2. Any anti-Amtrak and/or anti-HSR measures will either be squashed by the Senate or will be vetoed by President Obama
  3. The end of passenger rail in America will require the GOP to have 67 Senate seats or rely on a few anti-Amtrak Blue Dog Senators
Mica will now become the transportation chairman in the House. Other than truncating Florida's route, he was very upset that the White House decided to dish out most of its grants to any routes that were classified as Regional HSR or below. He wants the Northeast Corridor to get a lot of money and also have private operators running the route as well.

As for all of the Republicans who rail (no pun intended) against Amtrak, they should put their money where their mouths are at the national and state levels. If they want to send a message to Amtrak, they would shake things up by tilting the field in favor of companies like DB-owned Arriva, First Group (owners of Greyhound), and Go-Ahead and against Amtrak. Then, they would order the state DOTs to select those companies to run the trains.

It would be advantageous in that the GOP would be unable to equate trains with "socialism," Amtrak would no longer be able to automatically get first dibs on corridors, and riders would be able to select from at least two rail operators in their states.

The Midterms and Rail

Last Tuesday, rail advocates were mostly wallowing in misery after anti-rail candidates won offices.

Wisconsin
Scott Walker campaigned as the guy who would pull the plug on the Hiawatha extension to Madison. Last Monday, outgoing governor Jim Doyle signed a deal with the feds to go ahead with construction of the route. However, construction was halted days after Walker's win. Even stranger still was the governor-elect's plea to Talgo to stay in the Badger State even though he was the one to create an anti-train site. If Walker really wants to focus on highways and stop the rail project, he will have to deal with the consequences like lost jobs, passengers in southeast WI continuing to ride outdated and unreliable Horizon cars, and putting the entire Chicago-Twin Cities HSR route in jeopardy.

Ohio
Ex-congressman John Kasich is even more serious about killing the 3C route than Walker is the Madison extension. The gubernatorial elections in OH and WI may have been more about the voters wanting to stick it to the president than anything else. Ergo, they should not complain when there's no dependable train service in their states in the upcoming years.

The fact that the Buckeye State's governor-elect was able to get away with calling the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati route a 39 mph project when it was continuously disproven completely baffles me. The starting speed is 79 mph with long-term plans to provide a 110 mph speed.

John Kasich is not the only person responsible for letting a very sensible rail project become stillborn--the Ohio Rail Development Commission also deserves blame because they were the ones who relied on an Amtrak report from 2009. If the officials in Columbus had done their homework, then they would have at least talked to one or two other operators for a different analysis. After all, the PRIIA allows states to talk to other rail companies. There are various companies that are lining up to run intercity train routes in the U.S.

If the ORDC had taken a page from the folks out west, then Kasich would have been unable to spread his 39 mph lie and Amtrak would be looking behind its shoulder due to a second player providing service in a vital state.