WASHINGTON – Senators and witnesses alike reached consensus at Tuesday's subcommittee hearing about President Barack Obama's plan to provide $13 billion for a nationwide high-speed railroad system:
Federal funding will not be enough.
Participants in the Senate Commerce,Science and Transportation hearing also agreed that the plan would create jobs and reduce carbon emissions,automobile traffic and dependency on foreign oil.
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell,D,co-chair of Building America's Future,said the government finances infrastructure projects the same way the government pays for paper clips.
“It's nuts,” he said. “It's time to change.”
Obama included $8 billion in the federal stimulus package to jump start the development of a high-speed rail system. Obama has identified 10 regions that have potential corridors for high-speed development,as well as requesting $1 billion a year for five years for high-speed rail development in the federal 2010 budget.
The likely regions to get federal money include California,Chicago,northern New England and the Gulf Coast. The trains could travel at speeds from 110 mph to 185 mph.
The fastest U.S. train now is Amtrack's Acela Express,which can reach speeds of up to 150 mph on its route between Washington and Boston. Trains in France,Japan and China have top speeds ranging from 186 mph to 217 mph.
Karen Rae,deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration,said last week that California and Chicago are the frontrunners for stimulus money. The deadline to apply is Aug. 24,with the FRA tentatively releasing grants in mid-September.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg,D-N.J.,chairman of the subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure,Safety and Security,agreed with Rendell's criticism.
“What we have invested in rail is pitiful,” Lautenberg said.
Passenger rail funding has steadily declined since 1945,while aviation and Interstate highway funding has increased substantially.
Rendell suggested creating a federal capital bill to pay for long-term infrastructure projects. He said creating an infrastructure bank would streamline funding for such projects.
He said countries smaller than the United States,such as Germany and Japan,have built massive infrastructure projects.
“That's what we should be doing as a nation,” Rendell said. “We should finance it through a capital budget. … It's the only way we can get this done.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer,D-Calif,whose state arguably has the most developed high-speed rail plan,said states,municipalities and private industries are instrumental in making high-speed railroads a reality.
On Election Day,California citizens approved $9 billion in bond financing to match federal funds for a high-speed rail transit from San Francisco to San Diego,via Sacramento and Los Angeles. The proposition is one of the reasons California is a front-runner for the stimulus money.
Boxer said California is working with the private sector as the state moves closer to constructing the high-speed rail project,which is estimated to cost $40 billion.
Ross Capon,president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers,said in an interview that the private sector usually is reluctant to commit to infrastructure projects,especially railroad projects.
He said states will try the private route,but “that's a big unknown.”
Mike Izbicki,director of the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority,said in an interview that his state has tried to establish partnerships with bordering states to try to acquire a portion of the stimulus money.
The Northern New England Corridor is one of two international corridors in the United States,extending from Boston to Montreal. The second international route would go from Seattle to Vancouver,Canada.
Izbicki said reaching out to private industries is essential.
“They actually want to work with us to build a transportation center wherever we locate a station,” he said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller,D-W.V.,chair of the Commerce,Science and Transportation Committee,said a high-speed rail system is 17 percent more energy efficient than air travel and 21 percent more energy efficient than automobile travel.
He said the United States needs to increase passenger rail travel enormously.
“We will. It's inevitable,” Rockefeller said. “It's part of America's destiny.”