House Puts the Brakes on High Speed Rail
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The Fiscal Times
June 24, 2012

Next month, city officials in Normal, Ill., will open a $22 million downtown transit center to house what has become the second busiest stop on the Amtrak line that connects Chicago to St. Louis. The project, financed with one of the first Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, anchors a $150 million downtown redevelopment project that includes two hotels and a conference center.

The private investors behind the hotels anticipate the crowds moving through the center will jump sharply when the state completes an upgrade of the 300 miles of track that link the larger cities to Normal’s north and south. That $1.5 billion project, which will increase maximum speeds on most of the line to 110 miles per hour, received funds from the federal government’s surface transportation trust fund and a matching state fund.

Local officials in the college town eagerly await the high-speed line. Rail traffic between Chicago and St. Louis has grown at double digit rates in recent years as gasoline prices soared and businesses pushed their road warriors to cut costs. When the high-speed trains debut in 2014, “we think it will spur even more traffic and more economic development in the area,” said Wayne Aldrich, development director for Normal, a town of about 52,000.

Last week, the Department of Transportation announced the latest round of TIGER grants. The 47 projects in 34 states included $12 million for a truck-to-rail transfer facility in Mobile, Ala.; $15 million for a transit center that will anchor a $400 million redevelopment project in Pittsburgh; and $10 million to improve freight lines to Hunts Point in the Bronx. 

House Republicans, however, are blocking all new grants arguing that repairing current systems is the priority.  “Funding should go to existing infrastructure needs rather than unrealistic new high-speed rail lines to nowhere,” the appropriations committee report accompanying the legislation said. The program, now funded by regular appropriations, was axed from the Transportation Department funding bill last week, drawing a veto threat from the president. 

The effort to cage the TIGER grants is only the latest effort by House conservatives to slow down or eliminate funding for mass transit, freight rail and high-speed rail projects, which they see as a waste of money on “trains to nowhere.” Last February, the initial House reauthorization of the surface transportation trust fund, which allocates the gasoline tax, eliminated the 20 percent set-aside for rail projects that was established by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Only a revolt by Republican legislators from the suburbs outside New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago forced House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, R-Fla., to withdraw the bill.

Now, with a June 30th deadline looming, the summer road construction season could grind to a halt if Congress doesn’t at least extend the current law. A conference committee led by Mica and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Cal., must wrestle with a set of extraneous provisions attached to the two-year, $109 billion extension pushed by the House. They range from approving the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to giving utilities more flexibility in how they dump coal ash.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.