Skepticism in DC could derail high-speed trains for state

WASHINGTON–The Obama Administration’s ambitious plan for a $53 billion national high-speed rail network appears to be veering off track, with tepid support from congressional leaders and skepticism expressed by outside experts.

As lawmakers draft a 2012 budget agreement in the coming weeks, high-speed rail will almost certainly get shortchanged–if the program gets any money at all. The impact on Connecticut’s proposed $1 billion high speed rail line, which would run from New Haven to Springfield, is unclear.

For now, state officials are still hoping to get fresh federal dollars for that project. But it might come in dribs and drabs, rather than a robust stream, forcing Connecticut transportation officials to re-jigger or delay the state’s plans.

In 2009 and 2010, Congress appropriated about $10 billion for a new high-speed and intercity passenger rail initiative. The federal Department of Transportation was swamped with interest, with 39 states seeking nearly $75 billion from the program. But last year, lawmakers nixed funding for the program. And this year it’s a similarly tough sell, both politically and fiscally.

“It’s a setback,” said Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, an initiative of the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy group, describing the current political climate as “hostile” to high-speed rail. But she said that doesn’t mean Obama’s vision for a national network is dead.

“We see the high speed rail program as really a generational investment, like the highway system,” Todorovich said. Ebbs in funding and political support are to be expected, although she conceded that’s “not ideal for planning long-range projects.” She said states and businesses have to have “some level of certainty” so they can make the necessary commitments and investments.

That’s not likely to come this year. House Republicans have been highly critical of the White House’s sweeping new proposal, first unveiled in February, which envisions a network of high-speed rail lines that would reach 80 percent of the nation’s population. GOP leaders say that plan is vague and unrealistic–and in their transportation spending bill, Republicans zeroed out the White House’s $8 billion request for the program.

Instead, the GOP bill calls for a study of the Federal Railroad Administration’s efforts to develop a more strategic “vision and operational plan” that would lead to significant improvements in passenger rail service. The study would also look at state-level capacity for developing and running high-speed rail systems, highlighting a concern among some Republican governors that such projects would put them on the financial hook for unsustainable operating costs.

The Obama plan would be a “vast undertaking requiring tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars,” the House GOP spending bill states. “If the nation is to pursue such a goal, it needs to understand whether it has the leadership and the capability to accomplish this endeavor.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, called the House GOP bill “short-sighted.” She said Connecticut’s New Haven-to-Springfield line has already gotten a good deal of support.

The project has “come a long way,” she said, vowing to “see it through to completion.”

In the Senate, the White House might have expected more support, since that chamber is controlled by Democrats who generally favor major infrastructure investments. But late last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would channel only $100 million to high-speed rail programs.

“Senate appropriators have done more than merely declare a temporary slowdown in the high-speed rail program,” Ken Orski, a transportation analyst who used to work for the Nixon and Ford administrations, recently wrote in his policy newsletter. “They have effectively given a vote of ‘no confidence’ to President Obama’s signature infrastructure initiative.”

Orksi said that the Senate’s meager sum, combined with the House’s defunding move, sends a “bipartisan signal that Congress has no appetite” for funding such a massive new program.

Dan DeSimone, the Washington lobbyist for the Malloy Administration, agreed with that assessment, saying he’s “not sanguine” about the prospects for high-speed rail money this year, as lawmakers try to reconcile the House and Senate proposals and reach a broader spending agreement.

“There are competing priorities as they go into a closed room, and high-speed rail doesn’t necessarily have the constituencies in Congress that some other programs have,” DeSimone said. “Not every state even has a high speed rail program. And there’s obviously some political antipathy for it, if you look at Florida and Wisconsin.”

Republican governors in both those states rejected federal high-speed rail funds, even as many other states vied for the aid from Washington.

DeSimone said the Senate’s $100 million funding level is likely to be the “high water mark” as the negotiations get underway. Congress has until Nov. 18th to reach a budget agreement for fiscal year 2012.

“If we did get that enacted, I’m pretty confident that we could compete well for it,” DeSimone said, although he noted there will be stiff competition for a small pot of money. And, he added, “the way the Department [of Transportation] tends to spread it around, it’s hard for me to say how it would accelerate the overall program in Connecticut.”

To be sure, some critics have said that the federal DOT has been too “scattered” in its approach to funding high-speed rail, spreading the stimulus rail funds “far and wide,” as Orski put it, instead of focusing in a few high-priority projects.

He and others have argued that the Obama Administration would do well to concentrate its high-speed rail funds in the Northeast Corridor.

DeSimone said that’s a great idea in theory, but might not work in political reality. “If you were just going to focus high speed dollars in the Northeast, you wouldn’t get a lot of buy-in from other legislators,” he said.

The White House’s approach seemed to be “let’s seed the program all over the country and eventually it will take root and grow,” DeSimone said.

Todorovich echoed that argument, saying “the Northeast-only constituency hasn’t been sufficient to build a national program.” The strategy of spreading the dollars around and broadening political support “was a wise one.”

But what she and others didn’t count on was the political backlash at the state-level in Florida and elsewhere, with GOP leaders snubbing the federal offer of high-speed rail money.

DeSimone said the program has now “become politicized to such an extent that it’s hard for me to envision a situation where Congress would really fund the high-speed rail program” at the level needed for a viable national network.

For now, he said, rail money is likely to be doled out in a piecemeal fashion, with a “here’s what you got, make due” memo from Washington.

That’s better than nothing, but it means Connecticut and other states will have to “keep altering their plans to fit the new money,” DeSimone said. “It’s not that seamless project conception to delivery that ideally would happen.”