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High-five for ‘high-speed’ rail

Myself and some of the other regulars on Amtrak No. 340 headed from Milwaukee to Chicago had a toast from the beverage cart last night.

Thursday’s announcement that Wisconsin will receive $822 million of the $8 billion in federal dollars marked for rail projects came as good news for those of us who use the route for a living. (And I know what you’re thinking, “You travel from Chicago to Milwaukee every day to write this? Get a hobby!”)

High-speed rail (which still won’t be high speed compared with Japan and Europe) is something everyone who commutes daily has long longed for.

Right now, the trip from Milwaukee to Chicago takes about an hour and a half—not bad compared with the hassles of driving.

But it could be better.

The Milwaukee-to-Chicago spur stands to receive $12 million for rail and safety improvements. Currently, Amtrak’s max speed reaches 79 miles an hour. After moving to “high-speed rail,” trains will approach 110 miles an hour. If I did the math correctly (and I probably didn’t since I’m a journalism major), that would cut the trip between the two cities to about an hour.  That might not sound like much, but it buys me an hour a day, five hours a week and 260 or so hours (again, math, but I didn’t account for weekends, holidays, etc.)

So never mind the federal dollars, which we’ll pay for eventually, at least yesterday’s announcement will give me more time to concentrate on this blog … or get a hobby.

Ahh, someday: The only “high-speed” rail in the U.S., Amtrak’s Azalea.


  1. Quite possibly the everydays riders should be charged an appropriate ticket price so the private sector could own and operate a”High Speed” railway system. It is very obvious the fares charged DO NOT COVER the expense much less return a profit to the owners.
    I don’t see anyone subsidizing my vehicle travel expense; I pay for it myself.
    When the “High Speed” rail riders start subsidizing my travel/vehicle costs I WILL LISTEN AND SUPPORT YOU THEN !

    P.S. Retro pay to back to the “Railway” last subsidized re-structure would be gratly appreciated

  2. Ah, the old “let the users pay for it” argument.

    Actually, revenues from users of roads (“user fees”), including fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees and tolls, pay for a decreasing share of road costs. Taxes and fees not directly related to highway use (“non-user fees”) and bonds are making up the difference.

    Using Federal Highway Administration statistics, in 2007, 51 percent of the nation’s $193 billion set aside for highway construction and maintenance was generated through user fees—down from 10 years earlier when user fees made up 61 percent of total spending on roads. The rest came from other sources, including revenue generated by income, sales and property taxes, as well as bond issues.

    Forty years ago, user fees amounted to 71 percent of revenues spent on roads; now, user fee revenue as a share of total highway-related funds is at an all-time low since the Interstate Highway System was created in 1957.

    In 2007, non-user revenues contributed $70 billion to the highway system. By comparison, this contribution totaled $26 billion in 1967 (in 2007 dollars). Plus, not all user fees collected are even made available for highway purposes. Of the 18.4 cent per gallon federal tax on gasoline, 2.86 cents are already allocated specifically for mass transit projects. Another 0.1 cent per gallon is used to pay for environmental cleanup resulting from leaking fuel storage tanks. From 1990 to 1997, the federal government also set aside a portion of taxes on gasoline, diesel and other fuels to reduce budget deficits. But even if those funds were fully devoted to highways, total user fee revenue accounted for only 65 percent of all funds set aside for highways in 2007. This is down from 84 percent in 1997 and 77 percent in 1967. http://www.Subsidyscopecom provides a complete data set of user fee revenues and allocations for download.

    And then, too, fuel taxes haven’t been adjusted to keep pace with rising highway construction and maintenance costs. The amount of federal fuel tax allocated to highway purposes has not increased since 1997 and states have had trouble increasing fuel taxes to keep up with inflation. Increases in fuel prices at the pump can cause vehicle owners to cut back on driving, reducing revenues, and changes in vehicle efficiency can reduce fuel-tax revenues. Federal dollars have declined as a share of total highway funding. As a result, state and local governments have taken on a higher share of road costs and are increasingly reliant on alternative sources of revenue.

    (All data are from Highway Statistics, forms HF-10 and HF-210, Federal Highway Administration. All figures adjusted for inflation using the Engineering News Record Construction Cost Index.)

    And of course airports and harbors are taxpayer-supported. The airlines and shipping lines certainly don’t cover their costs.

    One more thing: Wisconsin is a notorious “donor state”. Those who insist that “only users should pay” ought to be reminded that we’ve BEEN paying for all the other rail systems being enjoyed for decades all over these other 49 states, and it’s high time they start paying for ours here in Wisconsin. Now let’s stop talking incessantly about it and let’s get this project started.

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