Environmental Law and Policy Center's Learner discusses new funding for high-speed rail

Last week, the Department of Transportation distributed $8 billion in stimulus cash for high-speed rail projects. High-speed rail also got a $1 billion boost in the president's fiscal 2011 budget proposal. Is funding being distributed effectively? During today's OnPoint, Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, discusses the ramifications and challenges to funding high-speed rail projects in the United States.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Howard, thanks for coming back on the show.

Howard Learner: Glad to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: Howard, a lot happening on the high-speed rail front in the last couple of weeks with a couple new proposals on funding. So, let's start with the first one. Most recently, the president proposed $1 billion in his annual budget for high-speed rail. Is that an adequate amount for a project of this magnitude?

Howard Learner: Well, Rome isn't built in the day. We didn't build the interstate highway system in a day or a year. It took many years. You have to look at the funding in combination. First of all, there was the $8 billion in economic stimulus funds. In FY 2010, the president asked for a billion dollars and Congress upped it to 2 1/2 billion dollars and these funds are going to be going out the door soon. Then there's the TIGER funding of a billion and a half dollars for freight projects and there are a lot of freight/passenger double plays. If you remove congestion points and bottleneck that benefit freight, they oftentimes benefit passenger as well. And then this year the president has asked for a billion dollars in his FY 2011 budget. Congressman Oberstar, in the Transportation Infrastructure Committee, is asking in the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization for $50 billion over five or six years. So, what you're seeing is a growing program of pieces that fit together. It's not a one-shot solve it with one amount, it's build a program that we can modernize and structurally transform our transportation system going into the 21st century.

Monica Trauzzi: Ask you mentioned, Congress increased the investment last year ...

Howard Learner: That's right.

Monica Trauzzi: ... from one billion to two-and-a-half billion. Is your sense that they might do something similar at this year with this year's budget?

Howard Learner: Yeah, well, there's a lot of interest and it's bipartisan. Look at what just happened on the $8 billion that the administration released to six major projects around the country. You had Republican governors, Governor Pawlenty in Minnesota, Governor Schwarzenegger in California, governors in the Southeast, just as you had Democratic governors pushing for high-speed rail funds. I mean they were a lot being pretty hard to get funding for their projects because these are projects that make sense. They improve mobility, reduce pollution, they create jobs, they spur economic growth. So, I think what you're going to see on the Hill is bipartisan support, both in the House and the Senate, to at least take the president's $1 billion and, even in a very tight budget year, I think you're going to see some members who are pushing to raise that up a little bit.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, so let's talk about the $8 billion in stimulus grants ...

Howard Learner: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: ... that DOT headed out last week. There's already some criticism about where the cash is going. What's your take on how the distribution was handled and whether it was spread out too thinly?

Howard Learner: Well, this is one it's the porridge is either too thick or too thin and the goal is to get it just right. If you got funding you're pretty happy and if you didn't get funding you're saying there needs to be more funding and you should be going up the list. And that's, I think, why you're going to see some more money coming through Congress as well. But what the president and the administration did was smart. They wisely diversified their transportation funding for high-speed rail into six different regions in a number of different technologies. So, for some of the linear systems, California and Florida, those are going up to 150 miles an hour. Those are straight lines. But then you have the Midwest which is a network. Chicago is the hub, 11 major metropolitan areas and some good-sized cities in between in much more of a network system with 110 mile an hour top speed and the goal here is to have rail time competitive with car travel and air travel when you go door to door and place to place. So, there's a good diversity here of technologies, good diversity of regions. You know, somebody might say why did you do six? Maybe you should have done nine. Somebody else says that spreading too thin. We should have just done three. You know, six is a good number in terms of diversifying approaches and with more funding you'll see both a concentration on those quarters to really make them work well and then you'll see some other quarters that sort of probably came close that will get over the top and get some funding.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned the Midwest region. Does that fall under the high-speed rail category because of the speeds at which those trains will be moving?

Howard Learner: You know, there's an endless debate of how fast is high-speed rail? Does that mean the Japanese or European trains that go 220 miles an hour? That's not what Acela has. Acela hits a top speed of 150 miles an hour and most people refer to Acela as being high-speed rail. The real question is not just the top speed; it's what the average speed is. You know, there's a little bit of bragging rights of can we go 150 miles an hour somewhere on the New York to Washington, DC corridor? But the fact of the matter is what really is important is the average speed. How long does it take you to get from point A to point B? So, bragging rights for those who want to argue about top speed, more fundamental is the basic blocking and tackling of removing bottlenecks, dealing with some of the roadblocks, dealing with some of the congestion points, because if you go 150 miles an hour and then you go 40 miles an hour it doesn't get you there in the 150 mile an hour speed.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what happened to the Northeast Corridor with the $8 billion in stimulus cash?

Howard Learner: Northeast Corridor did pretty well. Northeast Corridor got some additional lines and some improvements, both with Amtrak money and with economic stimulus money to make the Northeast Corridor work better. But, for the first time, the federal government really invested and diversified its investments in other technologies in other regions. So you see the Midwest, eight states, California, the Pacific Northwest, Florida, the Southeast, you know, more parts of the country are getting brought into the high-speed rail ballgame and that's important. We need a national high-speed rail program, not one that's just limited to the Northeast Corridor on the East Coast. That's not a knock on the Northeast Corridor. It means that the benefits though should go to other regions as well. That's a national program that's really tapping the high-speed rail opportunity.

Monica Trauzzi: So, when do we start seeing improvements and does this level of funding mean that we will start seeing things happening relatively quickly?

Howard Learner: I think you're going to see improvements helping gradually. The $8 billion needs to be spent, or the beginning of the spending, by September of 2012. A lot of these are shovel-ready projects. So, for example, there was $1.1 billion allocated to go from St. Louis to Dwight, Illinois. That's on the way to Chicago. That's a shovel-ready project. That's a project where those improvements can get going very quick, creating jobs, facilitating economic growth. There are a lot of ready-to-go projects in the Northeast Corridor as well in some of the other places, so I think you're going to see a lot of movement. But, again, this isn't the Big Bang theory. We didn't build out the interstate highway system in one year. You're going to see consistent and steady improvements and if we maintain a commitment to funding high-speed rail, not on a one-shot basis, but a consistent basis, we then begin to get the manufacturing jobs, the maintenance jobs, people will rebuild train cars in America, not just abroad. The Buy America provisions can kick in, but unless you have that steady market, manufacturers aren't going to start up here. They're looking ahead. They're smart. This is a job capture opportunity if we're consistent in our policies.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.

Howard Learner: You're welcome, glad to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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