As reported by Transport Nation and others, this morning, Vice President Joe Biden announced the White House’s proposal to spend $53B on high-speed rail over six years.
As Ben Kabak considered this afternoon, the White House Plan may be good news for Gateway, since funding will certainly be the most difficult aspect of the project. Unlike ARC, which was a commuter-rail project, Gateway puts the focus of high-speed rail on the trans-hudson question. The key to the project’s future, however, will lie in new federal transportation legislation, which is expected to be passed later this year. As transit advocates know, the existing federal surface transportation act, SAFETEA-LU, expired in September 2009, and has been temporarily extended by congress six times.
Tanya Snyder reported in late January on Streetsblog that the administration has been slowly rolling out its position for the new legislation. Biden’s announcement, made with Transporation Secretary Ray LaHood, begins to sketch in the vision Obama described in his State of the Union Address in January.
But Obama’s plan must contend with realities of a split congress. Republicans in the House, who will play a major role in shaping the legislation, object to Obama’s plan. Shortly after today’s announcement, Representative John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, released a statement on the proposal, with harsh criticism for the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak:
“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said.
“With the first $10.5 billion in Administration rail grants, we found that 1) the Federal Railroad Administration is neither a capable grant agency, nor should it be involved in the selection of projects, 2) what the Administration touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere, and 3) Amtrak hijacked 76 of the 78 projects, most of them costly and some already rejected by state agencies,” Mica added. “Amtrak’s Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service.
On the one hand, Mica’s words could be bad news for Gateway, where Amtrak is the lead agency on the project as part of its overall plan for HSR in the Northeast. On the other, Mica has repeatedly expressed his desire to focus investments on the Northeast Corridor, where high speed rail would be most profitable. Last week, he joined House politicians, both democrat and republican, to push for investments in the North East.
As Kabak notes, the interests of the Democrats and the Republicans seem to align nicely as far as Gateway is concerned. Indeed, this rare kind of bi-party consensus is being reflected on the local level. Yesterday, NJ Governor Chris Christie lauded Gateway’s announcement, even if he had criticism for NJ’s Democratic senators.
Interestingly, today’s announcement may also shape Gateway’s eligibility for federal funding. Kate Hinds reports on Transportation Nation:
The proposal announced today by the Vice President also streamlines the Department of Transportation’s rail programs, making it simpler for states, cities, and private companies to apply for grants and loans. For the first time, all high speed and intercity passenger rail programs will be consolidated into two new accounts: a $4 billion account for network development, focused on building new infrastructure, stations, and equipment; and a $4 billion account for system preservation and renewal, which will maintain state of good repair on Amtrak and other publicly-owned assets, bring stations into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and provide temporary operating support to crucial state corridors while the full system is being built and developed.
The Gateway Tunnel would be eligible for both newly created accounts. The project will require new tunnels, new station capacity at Penn and Secaucus Junction, and new rolling stock for Amtrak and NJT. In addition, the project includes extensive rehabilitation and replacement of existing infrastructure, such as the Portal Bridge and the existing NEC tracks.
From all angles, it looks like White House’s announcement currently represents the best case scenario for Gateway funding. Still, Mica’s position suggests that a very good compromise could still be reached.