By Joan Lowy
Washington — While Congress voted last week to kill spending for President Barack Obama’s signature high-speed rail program, the initiative still could have some life.
Republican lawmakers are claiming credit for killing the program. But billions of dollars still in the pipeline will ensure work will continue on some projects. And it’s still possible money from another transportation grant program can be steered to high-speed trains.
Obama requested $8 billion in fiscal 2012 for the program and $53 billion over six years.
But House-Senate bargainers last week agreed to a broad spending bill that eliminates any spending specifically for high-speed trains. The House approved that legislation Thursday, 298-121, and the Senate followed suit, 70-30, sending the measure to the White House.
Republicans have made it clear since taking control of the House last year that they intended to eliminate the program, which they say is too costly.
The bill marks “an end to the president’s misguided high-speed rail program, but it is not the end of American high-speed rail,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s railroad subcommittee.
Shuster and the Transportation Committee’s chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., say the future of high-speed rail in the U.S. is in the Northeast rail corridor, which connects Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, rather than the national network of trains envisioned by Obama.
“We are being given a chance to refocus and reform the high-speed rail program,” Shuster said.
But Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an Obama ally and high-speed rail supporter, said he was confident some money would be found to keep Obama’s train program going through the Transportation Department’s TIGER program, which makes grants to projects that achieve critical national objectives.
The 2012 spending bill includes $500 million for the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program. High-speed trains would have to compete with highway, transit, port and freight rail projects for money.
Since Obama took office in 2009, his administration has steered $10.1 billion to high-speed rail projects around the country. Some of the money only now is being used because of the time it takes to start up a major grant program and because the program suffered setbacks when several GOP governors, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, canceled projects in their states that had been awarded money.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week that he expected more than $1 billion in high-speed rail construction-related activity across the country next year.
The biggest project is in California, where the state is proposing Europe-style bullet trains traveling as much as 220 mph between San Francisco and Anaheim. Planners hope to start construction of the first phase, from Fresno to Bakersfield, next year and complete it by 2017.
The project has been awarded $3.9 billion in federal aid so far. California voters also authorized $9 billion in bonds for high-speed trains in 2008. But at that time the project was forecast to cost $45 billion and be completed by 2020.
A new estimate and schedule released this month pegged the cost at a little less than $100 billion and pushed completion to 2034. One reason for the cost increase is that it takes into account inflation over that period. But the price tag has strengthened the position of the project’s opponents.
“What’s frustrating about Congress passing no new funding this year is that it adds uncertainty to federal funding,” said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, an urban planning and infrastructure advocacy group. “That isn’t helpful to projects like California that rely on a certain amount of federal funding.”
The first phase of the California project already is paid for.
“Some time in the next few years they will need Congress to vote for more money for rail, but it doesn’t kill the project that Congress zeroed out funding this year,” Todorovich said.
Mort Downey, the No. 2 Transportation Department official under President Bill Clinton and a former Obama campaign adviser, said Obama’s high-speed rail plans depended on the California project.
“If California continues to go forward, we’re still on life support,” Downey said.
Anthony Perl, chairman of the Transportation Research Board’s rail group, said that even if Obama’s program collapsed, it’s “still highly likely” a national high-speed rail network would be built in coming decades, partly because the price of oil was expected to continue to increase.
“There is nothing that uses less oil moving people than trains,” Perl said. “Cheap oil equals more cars and planes; expensive oil equals trains.”
California transportation officials estimate that if high-speed train service doesn’t go forward, the state will need to spend $171 billion to build more than 2,300 miles of freeways, four more airport runways and 115 additional airline gates to accommodate the travel demands of the state’s population of 54 million people by 2050.