Final Stimulus Bill Slaps Transit Riders in the Face

The final tally is in, and we now have a breakdown for transportation
funding in the stimulus bill that President Obama will sign, barring
some unforeseen turn of the screw. Via Transportation for America:

  • $29 billion for highways and bridges
  • $8.4 billion for transit
  • $8 billion for high-speed rail
  • $1.3 billion for Amtrak

To
compare the final transit and rail figures with the House and Senate
versions of the bill, check out the table put together by the Transport Politic.

The
big news, of course, is that $8 billion for high speed rail, most of
which came from out of nowhere. And I’d be quite pleased with that
number if it weren’t for the meager sum allocated to transit, unchanged
from the Senate’s lowball figure. The endgame went something like this,
according to the AP:

In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,
D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines,
quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid’s office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.

That Presidential muscle could have been flexed to stave off fare hikes and service cuts
across the country, giving the economy a very fast-acting stimulus.
This last-minute intervention, on the other hand, is more than a little
puzzling. Among other headscratchers: How does getting people to the
slots an hour faster move us closer to ending sprawl?

  • I was pleasantly surprised by the $8 Billion for high speed rail. I guess it makes some sense that Obama was pressing for the extra HSR funds, since he has shown support for the mid-west HSR plan to connect several mid-west cities with Chicago. With this and the hope that Kerry’s HSR bill eventually makes it through congress (it’s languishing in the Finance Committee right now), AND the possibility of more funds in the big transportation bill later this year, I think the chances of CA-HSR actually happening (maybe even in the next 10-15 years) are good.

    As for the reported “slap in the face” to transit: Well, I would have preferred more for transit as well, but when we look at the percentages, should we really be complaining? Public transit is typically 15-20% of total transportation spending. This time it is 8.4 out of (29+8.4+8+1.3) 46.7 = 18% if you include the HSR and Amtrak funds in the “transportation” costs, and 8.4 out of (29+8.4) 37.4 = 22.5% if you don’t. . . . I don’t really see how you can view that as a slap in the face, especially in light of the huge boost that HSR has been given out of the blue.

    I do agree that more money should have been made available for operations cost so that transit agencies would not have to cut back service, but I’ll bet that more money for HSR is more politically feasible. providing more money for operations costs does prevent a certain amount of job loss, but congressmen might see that as just maintaining the status quo, which does not really invoke a stimulating jolt to the economy; and what happens after the stimulus money runs out. . . the cutbacks happen anyway?

    On the other hand, extra money for more inter-city HSR means infrastructure construction and jobs that didn’t exist before. This has more of a “stimulus” feel to it.

    To summarize: At this blog we are biased toward transit, so we would always want more money to be spent on it. But it seems to me the choices made in funding rail and transit in this bill were true to the spirit of the intended economic stimulus.

  • Michael

    High Speed Rail from LA to Vegas? What about high speed rail from LA to San Francisco, which voters just approved Prop 1A to build. Don’t we need some (i.e.: lots of) federal money before that project will get off the ground?

  • Wad

    Michael, California should be getting some of that money to build our high-speed rail network. It stands a better chance as it has state backing.

    L.A. to Las Vegas makes sense, as it has some bi-state cooperation — and hopefully it won’t be maglev by fiat.

    As for allocating $8 billion for high-speed rail, that is a huge deal. If the money is oriented around serving robust city regions, that $8 billion would go very far. The farthest the money can be stretched is by going for higher-speed rail, which is straightening out existing corridors to allow for something like 100 mph average speeds, and setting goals to upgrade speeds incrementally.

  • This just sets the stage for the battle over the forth coming transportation bill… It appears that this is no longer a highway vs. transit game. It is now a full on 3-way highway vs. urban transit vs. inter-city HSR battle.

    Of course the big picture guys can see that having more HSR may induce demand for urban transit infrastructure to support HSR. But in the short to mid term, it looks like the push for HSR will mean less funding (proportionally) for much needed subways, light rail, and more buses. Good luck with that subway to the sea Los Angeles… looks like we are going to be on our own. I won’t be shocked if the first segment of CA-HSR is complete before the subway reaches Century City.

  • Well, I won’t be shocked either. Without federal funding, the purple line extension is going to take a long time. Tony V is working on that, though. If he has ambitions at the state or federal level (and I think he does) he’s going to need to point back to getting the purple line on a fast track, since he campaigned with it.

    Frankly, I don’t understand the glum tone I’m sensing from this and other transit blogs. HSR is a GOOD thing, and this surprise 8 billion represents a change in direction at the federal level. Yes, there will be multiple system plans competing for the money, but CA is competitive and we already have the prop 1A mandate. Besides, there’s the Kerry bill and the transportation bill coming later this year, and Obama is supporting this. I feel like we’re in a good spot.

  • If the question is, “Do you want to spend $45-60 billion on a CA HSR network, or on expanding the state’s urban rail systems,” who really would chose HSR over urban rail?

    Do people have any clue how many rail improvements we could build in LA alone with HALF the amount of money HSR is going to cost us?

    And of course we all realize it is completely unclear, if not completely in doubt that once the system is built it will be financially solvent WITHOUT needing lots of state aid from the ever-dwindling transit funds.

    I’d much rather that money be spent attempting to, for example to increase LA’s mass transit share up to 25-35 percent and building 150-200 miles of much needed grade separated rail in the LA basin.

    Better to pass some type of federal law that allows us to tax airline travel for HSR to be built (a far stronger financial strategy by the way) than to be issuing bonds for rail lines that has benefit to the daily travel needs of the state’s population.

    The whole argument for HSR is a microcosm of what is wrong with the transit debate in LA: there so much PR hype, with pretty renderings of shiny trains, and high paid marketing campaigns that play on people’s fantasies, and so little discussion about the details of this major long-term investment and financial commitment.

  • I think the Los Angeles to Vegas thing is just talk and some pretty color pencil drawings, I don’t picture it getting much of this money with out real plans. California is the furthest along in getting HSR started. As for HSR versus transit, it shouldn’t be an either or debate and I totally agree we shouldn’t be short changing transit service. I really hope the transportation bill later this year gives transit a big boost. However all this anti HSR talk as though it stole funds from transit I think is misplaced, highway funding still gets more money than anybody, and that’s where the real problem is. A lot of that highway funding is probably going to be misplaced into lane widening projects rather then maintaining what we already have.

    HSR is an important part of a sustainable transportation future going forward, and we are one of the few wealthy nations who hasn’t even got started. This isn’t a zero sum game, we need both.

    “And of course we all realize it is completely unclear, if not completely in doubt that once the system is built it will be financially solvent WITHOUT needing lots of state aid from the ever-dwindling transit funds.”

    This assumes that HSR is like Amtrak, but it’s not. The TGV in France was started with Government investment, but is run as a business and makes a profit, and is doing better then the airlines right now. In fact Air France is getting into the train business to supplement their travel options. These trains are both fast and efficient in their energy use, and should not have to depend heavily on subsidy to maintain operations.

    If you think HSR is nothing but PR renderings and pretty pictures I doubt you’ve spent anytime looking at the California High Speed Rail blog, which is dense with details right down to how to deal with planning for earth quakes and the engineering challenges of certain turns in the route. Over at that blog they are glad HSR got a boost, but are just as disappointed as everyone else that transit got the smaller senate funding, because they realize transit and HSR complement each other as HSR stations will be at transit nodes, making car free trips a more viable option than with air travel. Prop1A actually sets aside some of it’s bond money to boost inner city rail for that very reason.

  • CNN calls transit a “winner” in the stimulus package, and frankly, like David Galvana, I agree. I mean it still pales in comparison to highway funding but… duh.

  • Jonathan Trachtman

    This comment is specifically directed towards Damien Goodmon….
    Damien, regarding your comments above (which i see where captioned on the Streetsblog site to highlight the article), though i get your point, i disagree…

    Most of us on this blog realize that the US is far far behind Europe and Asia on funding, strategic planning, infrastructure and collective will on BOTH inter-city (HSR) and urban rail.

    However, i don’t see this $8 billion in high speed rail funding by the federal gov’t as a zero-sum game at the expense of urban rail.

    The fact is, though even $8 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to what Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, and others are spending on their national rail networks, it is a symbolic and dramatic first step to creating ‘tipping points.’ I talk to everyday ‘transit illiterate’ but well meaning folks all the time who perk up when i mention provocative ideas such as ‘Bullet Train to Vega$’ or California HSR from SD-SF.

    I for one know how important it is (and how attractive it will be as a business model) for folks to hop on trains from LA and end up in SF just a few hrs later. Sure, right now it may involve less than desirable urban rail connections in SF and LA proper, but we need the two systems (Inter-city and Urban) to feed on each other’s success…without HSR, we cannot literally and mindset-wise link regions and that’s what we need to create this ‘tipping point’ around the country.

    Having said this, I am very concerned especially about the Subway to the Sea (Purple Line), and advancing it’s woefully depressing official timelines. But I do have a prescription, which I hope all transit advocates can work together and think out of the box to make it a reality, and that is:
    1. Public Private Funding Partnerships (working with Private Corporations, Sponsors, and Investors)
    2. Re-Electing Mayor Villaraigosa (I believe he is resolute in his commitment to LA urban rail)

    As far as the long term goes, we know this stimulus is only a start, and we see encouraging trends for mass transit as a whole.

    In order for the region and the country to succeed in repairing and upgrading its infrastructure, we need to see progressive commitment to and long-term funding of mass transit in the next Federal Transportation Bill later this year.

    Sure it would be great to have $50-$60 billion EACH for High Speed Rail and Urban Rail– hell, even more–but we’re taking baby steps to realizing the need for that eventuality, and for integrating surface transportation efforts among roads, urban rail, freight rail, and inter-city rail.

    I hope, for all our sake, that these diverse transportation constituencies (along with alt energy) can come together with a unified voice for mutual benefit.

    It’s the only path to long-term success.

    Jonathan Trachtman
    Los Angeles

  • I, of all people, have absolutely no problem advocating for additional investment in rail transit. So forgive me if I made it seem as though my only reservation with HSR is that it will most certainly drain the state’s capital rail transit resources and transit operating dollars, given that these are general obligation bonds. I, and many other transit advocates, have serious concerns about HSR that go far beyond that. And they’re not settled with statements like:

    “This assumes that HSR is like Amtrak, but it’s not. The TGV in France was started with Government investment, but is run as a business and makes a profit, and is doing better then the airlines right now.”

    Gary, that was exactly what I was referencing when I said “[T]here so much PR hype, with pretty renderings of shiny trains, and high paid marketing campaigns that play on people’s fantasies, and so little discussion about the details of this major long-term investment and financial commitment.”

    When I see (for lack of a better word) simplistic explanations like “It works there so it should work here,” I’m always skeptical. Simply, just because the TGV is profitable, doesn’t mean CA HSR will be profitable here. Heck, Tokyo has some subway lines that make a profit, does that mean the Wilshire Line extension will make a profit? You know the answer is, “No.” My point is the reasons WHY some Tokyo subways are profitable and subway system won’t have nothing to do the mode. You got to get into the details.

    So for me, I try to identify some explanations/things that I would imagine high speed lines have going for them in Europe and Asia that may possibly explain their success (beyond simply the mode) and examine that in the context of what we don’t have here. Just one of those things going for European HSR is extensive mass transit systems and tightly compacted urban areas in many of the major cities along the routes.

    A couple of years ago a friend from Germany, who had traveled probably 3-4 days a week throughout Europe, mostly on rails, visited L.A. Our lack of an efficient rapid transit system meant that for the first time in 5 years he had to drive. He had to rent a car.

    This would be different discussion if we were talking about an HSR from Washington DC to Boston that would connect DC, Philly, NYC and Boston. They have a public transit system and population/job densities TODAY that would allow an HSR to get around and do business without ever needing to rent a car.

    And by the way Amtrak was once several private railroad companies. Brush up on your rail history. And where is the corporate entity, where’s it’s solvency plan and fare structure (you can’t have one without another)?

    If they exist (I don’t think they do), I’d hope they’re more credible than the ridership projections, which belong on the NYT Best Seller Fiction list.

  • @Damien Goodmon:

    Inter-city transportation over distances under a few hundred miles is mostly short plane flights and automobile right now. The numbers for how many people fly between L.A. and San Jose or San Francisco are known, you can find them at the CA-HSR website. HSR could deliver those passengers at times that are comparable to the door-to-door flight times at a fraction of the cost, producing a fraction of the pollution, and using a fraction of the foreign oil. These are the justifications for building HSR, and they are sound.

    HSR is aimed at solving a different problem than inner-city public transit. We need both. As Gary said, it doesn’t make sense for us to set up a tug-of-war between inter-city HSR and inner-city public transit. We should be happy when EITHER gets funding, because the two systems will depend on each other heavily.

    Besides, if you’re talking about state-wide or interstate transportation systems vs. systems that start and end within the confines of a single city, which does it make sense for the FEDERAL government to worry about? Obviously, HSR.

  • Damien, I mentioned the TGV in France as an example of profitably on a mature system, but a closer comparison relevant to California would be the recent Madrid to Barcelona line, with similar travel time and population spread as the proposed California route. This route has become very successful in a short amount of time, creating new travelers and stealing many from airlines on what was one of the more heavily air traveled trips in Europe. I mentioned the CA-HSR blog because that has archives of all this stuff and lots of linked references, of course my explanation was some what simple, this is a comment board and I don’t have time to write an essays on every topic.

    But the larger point I was trying to get at, as you mention HSR has been most successful in connecting cities with developed transit of their own. This is why we should be fighting for a greater share of funds from the highway interests, where we still dump most of our transportation funds, so that we can tackle mass transit travel in and between our cites together. If there was less infighting about transit project A gets more then B, and a more unified front to shift money away from lane widening and highway interchanges, maybe this wouldn’t be as much an issue.

    There is something that captures the imagination as well with these sophisticated train systems, and I was surprised to find that before Obama took office the highest voted suggestion on the change citizen page was investing in high speed rail, only eclipsed by legalizing marijuana. The fact that Obama personally pushed to get extra funding for HSR into the bill suggests to me he is paying attention to what people are talking about. So maybe HSR got some higher profile PR, does that mean we should hate on HSR, or that we should be working to elevate the perception of other transit. When you ask most people about green transportation they think Toyota Prius, not riding the bus, even though a half full bus is far more efficient then any hybrid car, not to mention land use efficiency. We need to work to shift that cultural perception around.

  • Spokker

    Don’t let this news split HSR and mass transit supporters! I wouldn’t be surprised if some anti-rail folks see the infighting as a happy side effect.

    CAHSR supporters are already speaking out about the lack of mass transit funding.

    http://cahsr.blogspot.com/2009/02/8-billion-for-hsr-while-public-transit.html

    Don’t worry, folks. We’re right there with you.

  • First off, I’m sorry I let this conversation go on so long without chiming in. I had an interview downtown today that I’ll hopefully have up on Tuesday and some other stuff that kept me away from the computer basically from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.

    @ everyone who wonders about the “negative coverage”

    The reason the tone is so negative is that the House version of the stimulus had a lot more money for transit than the Senate and eventual conference committee bill. For the people who worked tirelessly advocating to Senators and Congressmen to keep the House language on the stimulus, it’s a major dissapointment that the conference committee “compromised” the difference between the two bills to basically go with the lower number.

    @ HSR supporters

    If I believed that a lot of the HSR funds were going to go to the SF-LA-SD project, I would have cut that part out of Ben’s article out or even written my own altogether. But that so much of the negotition was done in Harry Reid’s office (to the point that Pelosi actually pitched a fit about it according to Politico) and he’s already talking about funding for the gamblin’ train to Las Vegas, I am mighty sceptical that much, if any, of that money is going to end up being spent on the line we supported last fall. If it does, I’ll do a mea culpa post and you can all “I told you so’d” me. I’ve certainly been willing to do them in the past.

  • Well, it’s 8 Billion for the whole nation, and CA HSR needs $10 Billion from the federal government alone, so I was guessing it might get a couple billion of the 8 at most. Also remember that Obama has been paying lip service to the development of a midwest HSR with connections to Chicago for a while, so he’s got to make good on those implications the same way Tony V has to get that subway to the sea rolling. Regardless, this 8 Billion obviously doesn’t seal the deal for CA-HSR. But it represents a commitment from the congress and the new administration toward this mode of transportation, and that alone is encouraging. For the rest of the funding, CA-HSR will have to hope that Kerry’s HSR bill passes and that more HSR funding comes through in the “big transportation bill” I keep hearing about.

  • Wad

    Damien, I understand your concerns about the financial viability of high-speed rail in California. You may have doubts that it will be profitable, or coming close to breaking even.

    That will all depend on the price-point of the tickets sold. We won’t know what that is until we see a fare table, and that will depend on whether the state mandates all trips operate at a high price threshold in order to show a book-value profit. If it does, then high-speed rail prices itself out of the market and will fail.

    Yet, paradoxically, there are many people who desire to see high-speed rail fail. For one thing, high-speed rail is framed by both supporters and opponents as solely existing to move people between L.A. and San Francisco. We are weighing whether a 3-4 hour train ride will beat a 1-hour flight.

    It won’t.

    So what’s the point?

    Well, California has three of the six busiest rail corridors in the nation, so we already have the ridership with what exists now. Second, high-speed rail can do what no plane can — serve the Central Valley. L.A. to San Francisco will be a percentage of riders smaller than, say, people traveling between Central Valley cities and coastal metropolitan areas.

    Before we all cluck at how backward and pathetic (name Central Valley city here) is, the state stands to benefit economically. Businesses in high-cost Southern California and Bay Area can relocate certain tasks or expand in the Central Valley while keeping the jobs in California. Also, Central Valley residents can either make day trips to the coasts or perhaps, even commute. (Don’t forget there is a string of universities in Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Modesto and Stockton, but not enough jobs to support the degrees).

    This is how Germany, in particular, helped make high-speed rail as part of an economic chain.

    As for saying HSR before comprehensive urban transit is putting the cart before the horse, that’s a straw man. No North American airport depends on public transit riders for a significant share of its traffic, yet airlines didn’t see this as an impediment to business. Or, for that matter, California still has three busy rail corridors despite our existing transit situation. And remember, San Francisco does not have direct Amtrak access.

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