House Puts the Brakes on High Speed Rail
Policy + Politics

House Puts the Brakes on High Speed Rail


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.

Frustration with the House maneuvers led Senate Democrats, whose bill passed with bipartisan support, to stage a construction equipment drive-by at the nation’s Capitol last week. With cement mixers passing in the background, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said “it is an utter disgrace that there is a minority of folks in the House of Representatives – extremists – who would say they are for the American people at the same time that they refuse to put them into work tomorrow.”

Spokespersons for Republicans on the conference committee either did not return phone calls or refused to comment while the negotiations continued over the weekend.

There was little support among construction industry lobbyists for earmarking the entire gas tax revenue stream for highways and letting mass transit fend for itself in Congress. Beth McGinn, a spokeswoman for the main lobbying group for road builders, which is now called the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said, “There’s a ‘T’ in our name. Our members also build light rail; they build subways.”

While the trust fund reauthorization bill will undoubtedly be approved in some form, the veto threat from the president on the annual Transportation Department appropriations bill reflected the deeper struggle being waged over maintaining federal support for mass transit and high-speed rail. Republican governors in Florida and Wisconsin have cancelled their high-speed rail projects, while California’s system, which was approved by voters several years ago, is in the process of being revamped to lower costs while spreading some of the money among existing rail networks in the state.

State and local officials that back more investment in rail projects see them as an opportunity for “transit-oriented” development, especially in higher density corridors between cities that are within a few hundred miles of each other. Projects like the one in Normal create both temporary and permanent jobs by attracting businesses and housing to new or refurbished commercial zones adjacent to stations along the routes. 

The same is true for the light rail lines that are being built inside many metropolitan areas. For many, Washington, D.C.’s federally-financed Metro was the model. It spawned a half dozen “edge cities” around major suburban stops.

“Smart-growth” environmentalists and new urbanists that push for walkable neighborhoods also advocate for more transit projects. They see them as a way to discourage suburban sprawl while building the infrastructure needed for higher-density, “in fill” development.

The movement got a major boost from President Obama’s stimulus package, which set aside billions of dollars for mass transit and high-speed rail projects. The TIGER grant program, where local communities competed for about $500 million a year, spawned dozens of projects like Normal’s across the country. If continued, the program would be a major boon to economic development along the new or improved rail lines being built in states whose governors still see the wisdom of investing in such projects.

But the Republican-led House took the $500 million previously spent on TIGER grants and gave it to Amtrak to fund intercity projects owned by either “Amtrak or States.” That reference to states, one lobbyist noted, opens the door to funneling more money to mostly rural states on Amtrak’s cross-country lines that serve few riders.