Saturday, November 13, 2010

Passenger Rail Project Funding In Jeopardy

Damn those Republicans!  Damn those Tea Party radicals!

Some of you will think I say this seriously, and others - those who know me better - will know I say this with tongue firmly implanted in cheek.  Yes, Republicans in control of the House and in control of more state governments will put Passenger Rail funding (read: stimulus money) in jeopardy.  For example, Wisconsin will suspend work on the high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison until it is determined that it won't cost the state too much money.  And it will.  Ohio appears to be opting out of high-speed rail funding, too.  And for the same reason.

Another example is right here in my (adopted) home state of New Mexico.  Bill (never met a project I wouldn't fund as long as they put my name on it) Richardson will be out as governor as of January 1, 2011, and his longtime lieutenant gov Diane Den-eeesh (as Mr. Obama pronounces it) will not be taking over.  Instead, the intelligent electorate has chosen a conservative, Susana Martinez, to be the state's first elected female governor, and first female Latina governor in the nation.  She hasn't specifically targeted Railrunner Express and other rail projects, but you can bet she'll think long and hard before throwing in with those of us who would like to see the Denver (or Cheyenne) to El Paso rail corridor go forward.

That Passenger Rail projects are in jeopardy may be a good thing. I said may be, because I’m not sure it is. Building on what I have said in a previous blog, for which I was criticized as actually being anti-Passenger Rail, let me state a reason.

I don’t think anyone can disagree that funds for rail projects are limited. The conservative victories just shake us into this reality from the euphoria of finally having a national rail passenger system that didn’t have to beg for funds. Okay, it will always have to beg, but you know what I mean.

Given the reality that funds for rail projects will always be limited, and will have to be shared with freight railroads, a step back is what we need so that funds are not wasted on projects that cannot possibly succeed in the way we all dream they should.

The freight railroads, by the way, have a better handle on reality than Amtrak or than states that are simply taking money to do studies for high-speed rail because it’s there and coming to their states. How so? First, freight railroads have long resisted public money, then embraced it when it became inevitable. They are spending a lot of their own money on improvements, and it is unlikely they are going to take funds just for the hell of it. The funding they get will go to real improvements that are going to net them real bottom-line numbers. Freight railroads are not going to take money that makes them beholden to government unless they see a real upside.

Not so with Amtrak, which took the money long before it had any real idea what to do with it. Not so with state and local transportation departments and agencies, who are so used to taking money when it’s offered that they have ready-dug pie-in-the-sky holes they can throw it in, depending on the size of the check.

Conservatives putting the brakes on projects, wanting to get more for the money or be sure the projects aren’t really pre-dug black holes, may just be a good thing to let us step back and make sure the funding is directed to projects that, in the near term – say a decade – have a chance of success.

©2010 – C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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