States Struggle To Share Cost Of High-Speed Rail
President Obama is calling for more spending on the nation's infrastructure, including railroads. The original stimulus bill allocated $8 billion to develop high-speed passenger rail, and this year Congress added an additional $2.3 billion.
Still, high-speed-rail projects have not been on the fast track. New federal funding for high-speed rail requires states to share project costs with the federal government -- a tall order for states already strapped for cash.
In some states, high-speed-rail funding has become a campaign issue. In Wisconsin, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker put together a cheeky ad in which clips from Obama are cut together with the candidate's pitch. In the ad, Walker interrupts Obama, stating that he "would rather take [$810 million set aside to build a high-speed-train line between Milwaukee and Madison] and fix Wisconsin's crumbling roads and bridges."
Walker is not the only Republican questioning rail spending. His opponent in the GOP primary, former Rep. Mark Neuman, says the high-speed-rail money should be returned and go toward tax cuts. Republican candidates in California, Ohio and Florida also say this is not the time to be spending money on high-speed rail.
It's a tempting political appeal to those voters fed up with government spending, but it still puzzles Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
[High-speed-rail] projects are supported by the public, by chambers of commerce, by labor unions, by environmentalists. They’re a win-win-win.
"I certainly wouldn't be advising a Republican to come out against a project with as much broad-based support as high-speed rail," Brubaker says. "These projects are supported by the public, by chambers of commerce, by labor unions, by environmentalists. They're a win-win-win."
What's more, Brubaker says, the money cannot be returned or spent on other projects.
"If Wisconsin turns back high-speed-rail money, that money will simply be spent on high-speed-rail projects in Illinois, Florida or California," he says.
While Republican candidates have been railing against high-speed-rail spending, incumbents have actively sought the money. The Federal Railroad Administration says it received applications from 10 states for a share of the $2.3 billion in rail funding Congress appropriated this year. Together, their projects amount to more than $8 billion.
But while the high-speed-rail funds in the 2009 stimulus bill were outright federal grants, Congress added some strings to the money it allocated this year: States will have to chip in a 20 percent match. In Oregon, where planners would like to upgrade existing service, Betsy Imholt, the state's rail planning director, says it's a heavy lift.
"When you're talking about a $2 billion project ... the match on that is $400 million -- well, that doesn't exist," Imholt says.
Right now, we’re kind of looking under the couch cushions for any spare change that's legal and available that we can put up for match.
Unlike highway projects, which have a dedicated revenue source, namely the gas tax, there is no such funding stream for rail, according to Imholt.
"Right now, we're kind of looking under the couch cushions for any spare change that's legal and available that we can put up for match. But that's going to run out here really quick, because there's not that much available," Imholt says.
Other states have scaled back or are delaying work on rail projects because they lack the necessary matching funds. Still, Peter Gertler, chairman of high-speed-rail services for HNTB, a transportation design and consulting firm, remains bullish on high-speed rail's prospects.
"I do think it's a challenge, but I do think that we're finding the champions for high-speed rail in California, in Florida, in the Midwest still see this as a significant opportunity for their regions, for their states -- both as a transportation option and also as a stimulus option for getting people back to work," he says.
Despite political opposition, the Obama administration is standing solidly behind its high-speed-rail plans. In Wisconsin this summer, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood vowed high-speed rail was coming to the state, saying there is no stopping it.
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