Sunday Train: Will We Be Ready for the Great 2017 HSR Policy Unlock?

I've posed a question in the title of this week's Sunday Train that I have no intention of answering myself.

The first thing you may have noted is that the title presumes a "Great 2017 Policy Unlock" that is by no means certain. And assuming an event in a title as a lead-in to talking about the likelihood of that event is a long-standing internet link-bait practice.

The second thing, however, is that even that would be focusing on political fortune telling, and the Sunday Train is not normally about making guesses about what will happen. It is more often focused on policy in the sense of thinking about what should happen and, sometimes, what we can do to make it more likely to happen.

The foundation of the Sunday Train is the premise that on our current track, with our current transport and energy systems, we are driving the possibility of retaining a national, modern, industrial economy over a cliff. We are doing that in three ways:

  • Our Energy Production and our Transport Systems combined are responsible for a majority of our CO2 emissions, and even if we converted everything else in our economy to be 50% carbon negative ~ sequestering 50% as much CO2 as it present emits ~ our current Energy and Transport systems would be sufficient to drive the globe far enough into Climate Crisis to bring down our national industrial economy;
  • And the world has hit Peak Petroleum Production, as is clear from the variety of "scraping the bottom of the barrel" oil and oil-replacement exploitation efforts taking place today, and has started to slide down the other side of the peak, so that an economy as exposed as our own to oil price shocks is going to lose massive ground compared to competing economies that are already positioned to shelter themselves from the impact of oil price shocks
  • And we are heading toward the Energy Return on Investment cliff for the fossil fuels we produce ourselves that our current Energy and Transport systems relies upon, and as we slide down that cliff, the economic benefit of that domestic fossil fuel production will progressively decline, leaving us behind any national economies or continental economic systems that seriously pursue sustainable, renewable energy sources that are seeing growing Energy Return on Investment, due to technological progress.

Pick your poison, since any one of them is serious enough to either drive the US economy from the ranks of the core economies into the ranks of the semi-peripheral economies, or even to eliminate our ability to retain a national economy at all.

Given that premise, the "odds of success" in a political forecasting sense is not the focus of the Sunday Train. The focus is rather the prospect for improving those odds. Whether that is improving the odds from a 50% chance of success, or a 1% chance of success to a 2% chance of success, in either event it is worth the investment in effort to try ... whether the mere 1/5 improvement in the odds, or the more impressive doubling in the odds, what is won in the event of a win is such a jackpot that its worth the effort to simply improve the odds a little bit.

High Speed Rail Is Not Dead Yet

Atlantic Cities have an article, "How Republicans Killed America's High-Speed Rail Plan", which notes:

The Obama administration had grand plans for a national high-speed rail network, but they didn't stay grand very long. After the 2010 midterm elections, new Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida spoiled hopes of such a system by rejecting federal money for routes through their states.

However, it is important to note that this did not, in fact, "kill" America's HSR Plan. The money, after all, was just redirected to other states that were willing to invest it in intercity rail in their own states. The FRA ~ the Federal Railroad Authority ~ has a page detailing ongoing or completed High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Funding. There were four basic types of capital investments made under the plan:

  • Express HSR, the "bullet train" systems going faster than 125mph on dedicated, all grade separated corridors.
  • "Emerging" HSR, 110mph or 125mph systems which I have taken to calling "Rapid Passenger Rail", running in corridors shared with freight trains with new or upgraded tracks to allows operation of what would be regular "Express Intercity" passenger trains in most of the world, without getting caught behind slower freights;
  • Conventional Rail projects either bringing passengers to Express HSR and Rapid Rail systems, or positioned to being upgraded to Rapid Rail systems

And supporting infrastructure improvements like new or upgraded stations, multi-modal transfer facilities, and rail junctions and flyovers to eliminate interference between passenger and freight rail operations.

The entries in the list range from small feasibility studies through to major construction projects , but the corridors receiving at least $100m in capital investment funding include (in project list order):

  • Chicago St. Louis, 4 projects, $1.46b
  • Northeast Corridor, 6 projects, $831m
  • Chicago - Detroit - Pontiac, 8 projects, $592m
  • New Haven - Hartford - Springfield, $191m
  • Springfield - St. Albans, 2 projects, $126m
  • Empire Corridor (NYC - Albany - Buffalo - Niagara Falls), 5 projects, $160m
  • Charlotte - Raleigh - Richmond - DC, 3 projects, $621m
  • California Amtrak, 13 projects, $308m
  • California HSR, 2 projects, $1.33b
  • California HSR (2 studies) $2.57b
  • Cascade Corridor (Eugene - Portland - Seattle - Vancouver), 6 projects, $802m

The sum total of capital spending there is over $8.9b, which is greater than the "$8b HSR plan" because in the 2009 and 2010 Fiscal Year budgets, there was additional High Speed Passenger Rail spending. And in addition to the 10 bigger ticket capital investment targets above, there was a range of investments in smaller capital works, benefiting passenger rail in some way on the designated HSR corridor systems:

  • St. Louis to Kansas City, 10 projects, $35.75m
  • Oklahoma City - Fort Worth, 2 projects, $4m
  • Keystone East Corridor (Philly-Harrisburg), 2 projects, $58m
  • Chicago - Milwaukee - Twin Cities, 3 projects, $51.8m
  • Boston - Portland - Brunswick, 2 projects, $59.2m
  • New York City - Albany - Montreal, 1 project, $3.32m

So while political reporters report the political story, which is the rejection of projects by three Republican governors, the actual story on the ground is that work funded in 2009 and 2010 on Express HSR, Rapid Rail, and complementary conventional passenger rail corridors continues.

Indeed, many of the conventional rail and Rapid Rail projects shall be completed by the end of the current administration or early in the next:

  • Chicago to St. Louis, 110mph operation on 75% of the corridor by 2015
  • Chicago to Detroit, 110mph operation on 46% of the corridor by 2015
  • New Haven - Hartford - Springfield - St. Albans rail system, begin using new track and signal by late 2016 for a projected 25 intercity and regional services by 2030
  • Of 16 distinct construction projects in the North Carolina Piedmont Improvement project, five (5) are already completed, and seven (7) are currently underway;
  • Of eight Cascade Corridor congestion reduction projects to enable an additional two Cascade Corridor services per day, four will be completed by the end of 2014, and the balance by the end of 2017, with the locomotives required for the additional service acquired by 2017
  • Final environmental clearances in the DC / Richmond / Raleigh / Charlotte corridor should be complete before the end of next year, though Rapid Passenger Rail service from DC to Charlotte by 2018 is contingent on availability of funding.

Building Up The Shelf of Projects

Of similar strategic importance, even though it involves a smaller total sum of funding, are the feasibility studies; engineering and environmental analyses; and final design work. All told, 20 corridors received funding for one or more type of study. Some of these studies were studies required for projects funded above, but the majority are studies that lay the foundation for future capital investment. What makes these studies especially important is that completion of a feasibility study is a pre-requisite to initiating a an engineering and environmental analysis, and completion of engineering and environmental analysis is required before receiving the environmental impact clearance that makes a rail capital investment project a "shovel-ready" project.

For instance, consider the "two Washingtons": the final Environmental Impact Statement clearance for the entire Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC, project is not yet complete, limiting the ability of that corridor to gain full funding. By contrast, basically the entire shelf of Cscade Corridor projects with completed environmental impact statements in the state of Washington were funded by the Stimulus II funding.

The funded studies were:

  • Kansas City - Oklahoma City (study) $250,000
  • Tulsa - Oklahoma City (study) $2.2m
  • Dallas - Austin - San Antonio - Houston (study) $15m
  • Northeast Corridor (5 studies), $89.2m
  • Keystone East Corridor (3 studies) $8.4m
  • Chicago to Omaha (study) $1m
  • Chicago - Detroit - Pontiac (2 studies) $2m
  • Chicago - Milwaukee - Twin Cities (3 studies) $20.4m
  • Boston - Portland - Brunswick (1 study) $600,000
  • Boston - Concord (study) $2m
  • Empire Corridor (4 studies) $13m
  • Albany - Rutland - Burlington (study) $500,000
  • Birmingham - Montgomery - Mobile (study) $100,000
  • Tampa - Orlando - Miami (study) $31.9m
  • Atlanta - Birmingham (study) $249,489
  • Atlanta - Chattanooga - Nashville - Louisville (study) $249,489
  • Atlanta - Macon - Savannah - Jacksonville (study) $249,489
  • Charlotte - Raleigh - Richmond - DC (4 studies) $73.2m
  • California Amtrak (11 studies), $21.7m
  • Cascade Corridor (5 studies) $11.5m

The range of studies funded in 2009 and 2010, many of which are ongoing as we speak, implies that by 2017, we will not only have a better stocked "shelf" of shovel ready Rapid Passenger Rail and complementary conventional rail projects, but we will also have a shelf of shovel ready projects representing more of the country than the situation as of 2008. Indeed, on my reckoning (see the 270towin website map to the right), 409 of the 570 electoral votes in the Presidential election would be up for grabs with the opportunity to gain substantial funding for corridor funding to, through or in the state within a single Presidential term (sorry, DC, for forgetting to color you in, but I've including you in the count). In terms of the Congress, that is thirty states with 60 Senators, and would serve metropolitan areas represented by over 67% of the seats in the House of Representative.

Of course, if that was the whole story, there would be continued progress, and the Fiscal Year 2009 and 2010 funding would have been matched by 2011 and 2012 funding.

The Great HSR Policy Lock

What the political reporters are reporting on as the "Death of HSR" is not the abandonment of already funded projects, many of them completed or under construction and many of them rolling out in or before 2017. What they are reporting on is the successful prevention of additional funding in 2011 and 2012.

This was done in part by the application of political pressure on Republican Governors to ensure that they did not cooperate with the HSR program, in order to deny the Obama re-election campaign the appearance of a successful program. As reported in the Atlantic Cities article:

A new report in the Tampa Tribune adds some spice to that notion. The paper details an interesting exchange between one of these governors, Rick Scott of Florida, and Paula Dockery, a (now former) political ally who favored the proposed high-speed route from Tampa to Orlando. Dockery tells the paper that Scott promised her in February 2011 that he'd accept $2.4 billion in federal money pledged for the project — in no uncertain terms: ...

Apparently his mind wasn't made up, because two weeks later Scott announced that he was declining the money. So what do we learn from this insider's revelation? Well, for one thing, it strongly suggests that the series of high-speed rail refusals had as much (if not more) to do with petty politics as with fiscal prudence. Beyond that, we're left to wonder if Scott himself received direct political pressure to change his position.

The other part of the political lock was the Republican take-over of the majority in the House of Representatives, which flipped the situation from the Democratic House and Senate negotiating over how much rail investment funding should be provided and for what kind of projects to the Senate including funding for capital investment in HSR and other rail projects while the House proposed to privatize Amtrak. The result has been continued provision of operating subsidies for Amtrak long-haul services and some modest investments in "good state of repair" projects in the Northeast Corridor, and no forward movement in additional funding for anything that can be labelled "High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Funding".

It was not just the simple fact of a Republican Majority that created the Policy Lock. After all, George H. W. Bush proposed a substantially more ambitious HSR policy in his re-election campaign than the modest "improve some rail crossings and do some more studies" bill passed under Bill Clinton. Because Express HSR and Rapid Rail intrinsically passes through or near less populated towns and cities that are often Republican in national policies, there is a portion of the Republican General Election electorate that can be won over by investment in this rail if they can be persuaded that it is a prudent use of public funds.

However, part and parcel of the 2010 mid-term election was investment by the radical reactionary, brand-named "Conservative", policy and propaganda establishment in the argument that all of these projects were a waste of public funds. The conventional rail projects were too slow, the Rapid Rail projects fell disappointingly short of "true" HSR and the "true" HSR projects cost too much and would take too long to build. The arguments were not entirely consistent with each other, but the focus in each state was, of course, on the highest profile project in that state, and the Republican Primary Base Electorate was by November 2010 almost completely convinced that whatever kind of rail project was proposed for their state was a boondoggle.

And that is the same Republican Primary Base Electorate that some 30-60 Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen enthusiastically represent, and somewhere around 100, maybe more, Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen completely cowed by in fear of a primary challenge from the right.

It is the majority of the Republican Caucus either enthusiastic supporters of, or cowering in fear of, the so-called "Tea Party" wing of the Republican Primary Base Electorate which enforces the HSR Policy Lock.

Keys to Unlocking HSR Policy

One of the keys to unlocking the HSR Policy Lock involve leveraging the progress that is already being made. Of course, leveraging progress that is being made is quite hard to do when the progress that is being made is ongoing construction work, either taking place out of sight, or else taking place in site and causing delays for train passengers and/or motorists. What ongoing construction does do is create a large, even if often quiet, constituency for continuing the projects once started, since embarking on a policy of pulling funding for projects already in progress threatens not just capital investments in rail but also a wide range of road and other construction projects, worth many billions of dollars per year ... and so despite some House efforts to claw back HSR funding, that at least has been able to be fended off by the Democratic Senate majority, with tacit complicity of many of the Republican Senate minority.

However, when the services roll out, that is a different matter. Much of the propaganda against these investments have been based on creating a mental image in people's heads that is difficult to counter with argument alone. However, once the projects go into operation, people will start to take advantage of the transport improvements offered, and their experience will weigh much more heavily with most people than any prediction of how bad their experience ought to be as described by some Oil Industry funded "libertarian" propaganda mill.

However, as we have seen with the government shutdown, a small minority of radicals in the Republican Primary Base Electorate are able to disrupt, derail and obstruct the ability of the Federal government to follow the wishes of a large majority of the general electorate.

That is, of under the current political distribution. Therefore, the other key to breaking the HSR Policy Lock is to break the power of the "Tea Party" element among the radical reactionaries in the Republican Party.

With very few projects being completed by the end of 2014, there is very little opportunity to bring the two parts together for 2015-2016, so there are basically two cracks at the second part of this: the first in the 2014 mid-term elections, and the second in the 2016 Presidential elections.

For this particular policy, the issue at hand is not necessarily the Republican Majority in the House of Representatives. The Congressional part of breaking the lock works whether the Democrats take over the majority in the House of Representatives, but it can also work if the power of the "Tea Party" Republicans to cow the majority of the Republican caucus can be broken.

The most important targets of opportunity in 2014 may well be the three Republican Governors that gave the HSR money back. Given the misleading "HSR is dead" narrative that was leveraged from those decisions, a repudiation of any of those three governors in 2014 can be portrayed as a repudiation of their HSR rejections. In Florida, PPP polling shows label-swapping Crist leading Gov. Scott by 12 pts, on the back of a 33/55 approve/disapprove rating of Gov. Scott. In Ohio, PPP shows Gov. Kasich stood at 42/47, and a narrow 3pts behind in a hypothetical match-up with Ed Fitgerald. And Gov Walker is treading water, 48/49, though at this point he leads in head-to-head polling match-ups.

Taking out two out of three of the "give the money back" governors would be useful as a general PR victory, but could also be particularly useful in opening up the doors of other Republican Governors that HSR corridor advocates may need to be able to talk to in order to ensure that states apply for funding if funding can be made available.

Byeond that, a strategy for cracking the power of the "Tea Party" wing of the Republican Primary Base electorate to cow the majority of Republican Congressmen in the 2014 and/or 2016 Congressional elections is a topic for an entire essay of its own. The key point for HSR advocates is to press in Democratic primaries for commitments for support of increased Federal investment in sustainable transport, and then to attack "Tea Party" representatives and their cowed fellow travelers in the General Election on whatever line of attack that they are open to.

Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

In the words of Monty Python, HSR "is not dead yet". However, while progress continues on the ground, based on funding that has already been committed, we are at present under a Policy Lock in terms of making additional progress on the Express HSR, Rapid Rail, and complementary conventional rail investments that are one piece of a sustainable transport future. And whether the prospects for success are bright or dim, we must pursue a more sustainable transport system.

If we are able to persuade some on the fence or presently opposed to join us, fine. However, it does seem that for some current opponents, we do not have any prospect of persuading them to work with us, and must attempt to run through them and break the position of power that they presently hold.

However, as always, I now open the floor to the comments of those reading.

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week's Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand "NT:" in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.





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