Monday, May 9, 2011

Thank You, Tea Party!

Today, thirteen states are benefiting from the decisions of Tea Party-supported governors in three other states.

As you probably know, Governors Kasich or Ohio, Scott of Florida, and Walker of Wisconsin each turned down millions of dollars in federal high-speed rail money, claiming their states would be burdened with cost over-runs and operations support for years to come. They claimed to be balancing their states' budgets and saving millions in taxpayer money, in the face of evidence that high-speed rail pays for its own operation, repays capital costs, and brings billions of dollars in new investments to the regions they serve.

The case of Governor Scott of Florida is particularly striking. The Mayors of Orlando, Tampa, and Miami issued a joint statement about the benefit of high-speed rail to their cities. The Florida Chamber of Commerce urged the Governor to implement high speed rail. Several coalitions of businesses made proposals to the state for investing matching money and assuming cost-overrun and operating expenses for high-speed rail. Governor Scott even instructed the Florida Department of Transportation not to accept the proposals. He refused even to listen. A classic case of, "don't bother me with the facts -my mind is made up".

The Florida project was the set to be the first 220-MPH rail line in the US, running largely in the median of Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, a distance of about 85 miles. Last year, when I was living most of the time in Florida, I had occasion to travel on I-4 several times. The traffic in the urban areas is frightful, and in the rural areas is merely heavy. Decades ago, I recall it as a pleasant drive, but population growth has made I-4 more of a nightmare than a nice experience. Governor Scott's refusal of funds to alleviate the problem are, I suppose, a great gesture of ideological purity for his Tea Party supporters. (Who knows what other, less public reasons he had for sending the money back.)

OK, so Governor Scott freed up about two billion dollars in money that can only be spent for high-speed rail. Governors Walker and Kasich turned away a few millions more. Today, we find out what's happening to that money. Part of the answer is, Michigan wins pretty big. Thank you, Tea Party!

Today, Ray LaHood, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, is making announcements at Penn Station in New York and Detroit Station in Michigan, about where the money is going to end up, and what for. For the $2.2B that were so kindly freed up by Tea Party governors, 33 states submitted proposals amounting to about $10B. Obviously, not every state is getting what they asked for, but many got a big boost. Let's look at the other states first, then in more detail at our region.

  • The Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington) was the biggest winner, with $795M (39% of the redistributed funds) for general upgrades and several site-specific improvements.
  • Five northeastern states are sharing another 7%, $150.2M for track and station improvements.
  • The South gets only 1% of the redistribution, Texas with $15M to study express rail service possibilities between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, while North Carolina is getting $4M for studies of the Southeast HSR Corridor (but North Carolina, which has invested a lot of its state funds into rail, also received a lot of Federal money from earlier ARRA distributions).
  • The West Coast states each received some money (19%), but the lion's share (15% of the total) goes to California, with $300M to extend and accelerate its 220-MPH high-speed project.

What about us? The Midwest gets 34% of this distribution, $609.3M. The Obama Administration has put a high premium on regions that work together cooperatively, and the Midwest has done that remarkably well (despite the recent defection of governors of Ohio and Wisconsin). For much of this, we owe a big vote of thanks to two organizations that have worked hard to bring the entire region together for high speed rail:

  • The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative: The MWRRI is the combined effort of nine Midwestern state departments of transportation, which have worked since 1996 to plan and implement a 3,000 mile high speed rail system to connect the region.
  • The Midwest High Speed Rail Association is a member-supported, non-profit organization advocating for fast, frequent and dependable trains linking the entire Midwest. For the last ten years, the tireless efforts of Rick Harnish, its Executive Director, have been promoting an integrated network of new, 220-mph high-speed lines combined with modernized Amtrak trains linked to strong local transit networks.

Michigan received $199.3M this time around, 10% of the total redistribution (pretty good, considering there were 13 states receiving funds). The majority of that, $196.5M, is "to rehabilitate track and signal systems, bringing trains up to speeds of 110 mph on a 235-mile section of the Chicago to Detroit corridor, reducing trip times by 30 minutes". The section referred to is between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. Currently, the section between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek is owned by Canadian National (CN), while the eastern portion belongs to Norfolk Southern (NS). NS would like to sell their line, since it's used more by Amtrak than by their freight trains - which means it would cost them more to maintain than it's worth to them. (It would, that is, if they were maintaining it...but apparently, since they're not planning to keep it, they aren't making a great effort. The section between Ypsilanti and Chelsea has been downgraded to 40 MPH because of poor track condition, and that may soon be extended all the way to Jackson.) The State of Michigan would like to purchase the NS line, but not at the price NS wants for it. (Negotiations aren't public, but it's pretty well agreed that price is the sticking point.) Is any of the $196M to be spent on purchasing the line? We'll wait and see.

Michigan will also share the benefits of the $286.2M for Midwest "Next Generation Passenger Rail Equipment Purchase – This state-of-the-art rail equipment will provide safe and reliable American-built vehicles for passenger travel, while boosting the U.S. manufacturing industry," according to the US DOT press release (linked below). Will any of them be built in Michigan? Probably not - other states seem to have been more active in attracting rail manufacturers.

Another $2.8M is designated for Ann Arbor's planned Fuller Road station, which is to be built on city-owned land near the foot of the University Medical Center. That, it turn, will allow the hoped-for commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit to have a station adjacent to the largest employer in the county. It will also include a park-and-ride facility, so commuters will be able to come from the entire county and park their cars there; no adequate parking is available at the current Amtrak station, which is over capacity now. Ann Arbor's (as I've mentioned before) is the busiest station in Michigan; the 85 people who boarded the morning train to Chicago on Saturday weren't able to fit in the waiting room; many had to wait outside.

These amounts are just about the finishing touches on what the Wolverine line needs to provide service that's competitive with auto travel to Chicago. Earlier grants and work have targeted bottlenecks on the route:

  • The Englewood Flyover was funded earlier this year to alleviate a frequent source of delay a few miles south of Chicago Union Station.
  • The Porter (Indiana) junction was funded last year; this will address the problem-spot where all three of Michigan's passenger lines join the busy main New York to Chicago line, formerly New York Central and now NS.
  • Amtrak owns the line from Porter to Kalamazoo, the longest stretch of track owned by Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor. Their crews, based in Niles, have upgraded the line and signals to allow running at 110 MPH already, though currently 95 is the top speed allowed.
  • Detroit Junction received a grant two years ago for a more direct connection between the CN line running north to Pontiac and the Conrail Joint Assets track running west toward Ann Arbor. This one junction is responsible for a consistent 10-minute delay, which can easily stretch to much more when there are opposing freight movements on either line.
  • Dearborn is moving its station to a new location, where it will be more centrally located and will encourage transit-oriented development.

Of course there's lots more that could be done to make the rail connection from Michigan to Chicago better. But don't look for more Federal money. As of April 15, the FY 2010 budget for high speed rail was reduced from $2.5B to $2.1B. The FY 2011 budget was reduced from $1.0B to $o.oo. That means it's time for Michigan to step up and do its part to continue improving transportation alternatives. It doesn't necessarily involve general tax increases, either: public-private partnerships can ease the pain for the state and provide an income stream for businesses; user fees for all types of transportation, including air, rail, and road, should be raised to cover more of their actual costs. But it would take a change in mind-set for Michigan transportation planners to engage business partners, and courage for legislators to enact higher fees for anything. So let's engage our state planners and legislators to see what we can do to provide alternatives to $4+/gallon gas. Consider joining the Michigan Association of Rail Passenger and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, both of which do excellent work to support rational transportation alternatives.

Oh, yes - and even though we owe some thanks to the Tea Party in three other states, let's not encourage them in Michigan, OK?

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