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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 11, 2014

Rail and the 2014 Midterms

Florida

Part 1

Only in the Sunshine State can up be down. Over the summer, Rachel Dovey and Fred Frailey talked about how backwards the rail picture was in the state--the Tea Party-backed incumbent governor Rick Scott backing the private All Aboard Florida against ex-governor Charlie Crist who clearly prefers the high speed project Scott scuttled.

Other actors in the AAF saga are Treasure Coast residents and politicians who have exhibited a nasty form of NIMBYism. It's like these people have never seen a train before. They chose to live near an area where a major railroad frequently runs trains so it's ridiculous for them to make all of those demands. I can't help but wonder if these residents are actually upset that after 14 years of unfulfilled promises Amtrak is still nowhere close to implementing East Coast service between Jacksonville and Miami. If Treasure Coast residents want someone to blame, they should be pointing the finger at the feds for not funding the route during stimulus mania. These alleged problems would have never come up if Amtrak were already running trains through the area.


Part 2

Now that Scott has been elected to a second term, All Aboard Florida should all but be in the clear to proceed so Treasure Coast residents need to get over themselves. It really is strange that the same governor who relied on a highly biased study to finish off an HSR project that operators like Virgin were ready to run could go down in history as the guy who restored Florida's status as a major passenger rail hub--albeit accidentally. 

As for Crist, it would have been next to impossible for him to have revived the Florida High Speed Rail route just due to the fact that he would've at best dealt with a House of Representatives who has zeroed out federal HSR funding ever since it flipped to the GOP four years ago. His adversarial stance towards AAF demonstrates the overall problem I have with most Democrats. The TC residents' resistance to private sector operators hurts passenger rail (a Metro Jacksonville moderator hit the nail on the head).

The biggest thing missing over the "which train project is better" debate is the fact that neither Crist nor Scott showed any interest in corridor service along existing routes. The way to have a robust system is to work with what you have. The infrastructure is in place so foresight and selecting operators committed to producing world class service are the only things needed.

Midwest

The only way passenger rail is going to advance in the Buckeye State is for communities and advocacy groups to continue taking the lead since John Kasich is guaranteed to leave Columbus in 2019. Given the recent fiasco in Indiana over the operation of the Hoosier State, I hope that All Aboard Ohio and other groups have enough foresight to talk to other operators about the Hoosier Extension and the Columbus-Chicago routes especially if Amtrak's a no-go.

Mark Dayton and Scott Walker won their reelection campaigns as well but by single digits. Dayton's DOT will continue picking up the whole price tab for not only the feasibility studies of a second Chicago-St. Paul frequency but when the trains actually operate. 

When it comes to the new equipment for the Midwestern trains, IL and MI will get their share and give WI leftovers. If anything, the Hiawathas will consist mostly of leftover Horizon Cars. Any Badger State resident hoping for rail service off of the Chicago-Milwaukee-La Crosse-St. Paul route had better pray that Ed Ellis not only turns the Varsity into a regular route but expands his shortline empire.


North Carolina


In Wake County, Democrats turned a 3-4 disadvantage on the Board of Commissioners into a 7-0 board. These results will make having a referendum on light rail easier. The trick will be convincing the voters to join its northwestern neighbors.


National Outlook


Barring a 2006-like backlash against right wing rule in D.C., HSR won't be getting a dime until 2023 at the earliest. Even though anti-HSR Californians will hold some powerful positions in the House and continue making life miserable for the CAHSR project, the nation's only Express HSR project to be funded with stimulus funds will rely on state and private sector financing until it begins service.

Amtrak will likely see its funding slashed--maybe even significantly--but the real question is whether the new Congress will allow real competition, which would be the national operator's primary threat. With both houses soon to be in the opposition's hands, the Grand Bargain should be front and center as the alternative to the now-myopic national HSR vision President Obama laid out 5 1/2 years ago. 

Noel Braymer's editorial on how Republicans are the only ones who can save the long distance trains may very well be tested now. In order to prove Amtrak's advocates wrong, the GOP should implement any one of the three suggestions Braymer laid out. Second, congressmen and women should talk to their constituents who are starving for more train service as well as advocacy groups who want more trains in their states but aren't relying on "America's Railroad."

TIGER grants will be phased out in all likelihood. The currently negotiated TIGER VII grants will be the last funds the Obama Administration gives out to rail operators of all stripes.

1 comment:

  1. RailPAC is nuts, don't listen to them. They have a combination of west-coast bias and nostalgia which leads them to bad conclusions.

    The so-called "long-distance trains" should really be considered in two groups.

    (A) Eastern group.
    (A1) Lake Shore Limited, Capitol Limited, Cardinal (Chicago-NEC)
    (A2) Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Auto Train, Palmetto Crescent (South-NEC)
    (A3) City of New Orleans, Texas Eagle (South-Chicago)

    This "eastern group" all runs along corridors which are being improved for so-called "corridor service" either out of Chicago or off the NEC. They are reaping the benefits pretty much automatically. The entire cluster only cost $35.8 million to operate in 2012, before larding up the accounting with overhead. Three trains are already profitable before overhead (Palmetto, Meteor, Auto Train), and two more cost less than 2 million to run (LSL, Star). The *most* heavily subsidized only gets $14 million/year before overhead, and the others are much better. Boardman is purchasing new cars. Ridership is good year-round on nearly all of them. Even the Surface Transportation Board cares about delays on these trains, and wrote a letter...

    (B) Western group.
    Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, Empire Builder

    These mostly have extremely seasonal ridership, bottoming out in the winter. The *least* subsidized, the EB, costs at least $10 million/year before overhead, and the others are much, much more expensive. The group as a whole costs $115 million/year to run, before overhead.

    Group (A) is under constant attack from Republicans. Group (B) will be defended by Republicans. While both groups run through areas which vote Republican, the main populations served by group (A) are staunchly Democratic-voting cities, from Toledo to Atlanta to Miami.

    Group (A) is far more important to me personally, and Republicans have been incredibly hostile to these trains (all of which take people to Chicago or New York, or even Miami or DC, to their apparent horror). I see no chance of Republicans as a group changing their stripes on this matter. I think there's no point in trying to cut a deal unless they support group (A), and I just don't think they will.

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