Fiona Ma for State Assembly
News

High-Speed Rail Funding Gets Large Boost in Conference Negotiations

 

High-speed passenger rail was a clear winner in stimulus conference negotiations, securing more than four times the funding that was included in either the House or Senate bill, according to preliminary information released on the stimulus agreement.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pushed to add $8 billion for high-speed rail to the final bill, a sum that people familiar with the negotiations saywould largely benefit construction of a magnetic-levitation, or "maglev," train between Las Vegas and Southern California.

Bruce Aguilera, chairman of the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission, said he spoke to Reid last month about including money for the project in the stimulus bill. At the time, Reid told Aguilera that he was a big supporter of maglev but would have to see how talks progressed.

Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said the $8 billion is for competitive high-speed rail grants and that all states would have to apply for the funding. He said the maglev is just one project that would be eligible.

He also said Reid supported the funding increase because high-speed rail is a priority of President Obama. In a speech Feb. 10 in Florida, Obama said he wanted to see more "high-speed rail where it can be constructed."

But critics said the additional funding looks suspiciously like an congressionally directed earmark, which Democratic leaders and the president have promised to keep out of the financial recovery bill (HR 1).

"This has got to be one of the few items that dramatically increased in price," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. While the money may not be specifically for one project, Ellis said this may be a case where the language is written in such a way that there is only one right answer.

The California-to-Nevada maglev project was first earmarked in the 2005 highway law (PL 109-59). But a drafting mistake inadvertently subjected the earmark to appropriations, instead of mandating funding.

Congress approved a technical corrections bill last year that guaranteed $45 million to pay for environmental studies and other planning in connection with the project.

Aguilera said any additional money from the stimulus could be used to finish up studies on the project and even start construction. He said the technology fits all of Obama’s criteria for the stimulus -- creating jobs in two states, helping to wean the country off of foreign oil and building 21st century infrastructure.

The conference also added language to make more states eligible for high-speed rail bonds, at a projected 10-year cost of $288 million.

Under current law, states are allowed to issue tax-exempt private-activity bonds for high-speed rail projects where trains travel at more than 150 miles per hour. Since no current U.S. trains run at those speeds, the bonds currently can only fund new projects.

The language was tweaked to allow the bonds to be issued for projects involving trains capable of attaining speeds of at least 150 miles an hour. The change is designed to give more states flexibility to build new lines, but it would also benefit Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Acela trains operating on the line between Boston and Washington have the capability of running at more than 150 miles an hour, but the tracks will not accommodate such speeds.

Highways and Aviation

Although high-speed rail did well, funding for transportation in other areas received less than what the House passed.

Highways and bridges would receive $27.5 billion, compared with $30 billion in the House bill and $12 billion in the Senate bill. Public transportation would get $8.4 billion, compared with $27 billion in the House bill and $8.4 billion in the Senate-passed bill.

Aviation would receive $1.3 billion, compared with $3 billion in the House version and $1.1 billion in the Senate version. Other rail investments, including Amtrak and intercity rail, would receive about $1.3 billion, compared with $1.3 billion in the House bill and $3.1 billion in the Senate package.

Conferees also cut competitive grants for surface transportation projects that are not ready to go but could be finished within three years, to $1.5 billion from $5.5 billion in the original Senate bill.