Sunday, March 6, 2011

A nationwide rail strategy

In the comments on my last post, Alon wrote, "What I've heard from rail advocates is the exact opposite - i.e., complaints that Obama should've spent all the $8 billion on HSR, and not on low-speed lines in Ohio and Wisconsin." I may actually have been misreading the criticism of the plan from rail advocates, and there may be two dissatisfied groups: one group who argued that the money should be spread around the country boosting key lines to conventional speeds like 90 miles per hour, and the other that argued that it should be concentrated on getting a small number of demonstration corridors in the same league with the TGV.

The Obama administration plan was presented as an initial step in getting lots of high-speed corridors built around the country. In contrast to both the "quick network" group and the "quick high-speed" group, the stimulus plan could be thought of as a "slow high-speed network" plan - a slow way to build high-speed trains. In that case, consider my last post a rebuttal to the "quick network" critics. In this post I'm going to take on the "quick high-speed" critics.

First of all, the stimulus was a nationwide plan, and its primary goal was to put people to work so they wouldn't be restless, and pay them so that they would spend money on American goods and services. Ideally you want the jobs to be created in places where unemployment is highest. Failing that, you at least want them to be spread evenly throughout the population.

Second, the President was proposing to spend eight billion dollars, and as leader of the country he's expected to spend taxpayer money fairly. Spending fairly means different things to different people, but most Washington politicians feel that "fair" means their constituents get some. Obama had to at least try to give some to everyone. That's why he had the application process, where even Wyoming and South Dakota were encouraged to apply for high-speed rail funding.

If Ray LaHood had stood up one day and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to spend eight billion dollars, divided up between California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut," what would have been the reaction? All the Republicans would have screamed about government bailouts to rich coastal cities, and the Democrats would probably not have had the guts to keep the funding in the stimulus bill.

Third, it's the first principle of negotiating that you ask for what you want and settle for what you need. Obama seems to have forgotten this in the health care debate, and in the overall size of the stimulus, but his rail plan was a pretty good example.

It's true now that austerity-crazy governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and Florida have "given back" high speed rail money, but in some sense this is the best of both worlds. It allows rail projects in Vermont, Washington and Michigan to get significant boosts in their allocations, and it boosts the money for California even higher.

The Federal DOT hasn't yet announced which projects will get the reallocated money from Florida, but in the end, the money will probably be concentrated along the coasts and in the Saint Louis-Chicago-Detroit corridor. Who thinks that that would have passed if it had been in the original plan?


nathan_h said...

> Third, it's the first principle of negotiating that you ask for what you want and settle for what you need. Obama seems to have forgotten this in the health care debate, and in the overall size of the stimulus, but his rail plan was a pretty good example.

The public option, or single-payer really, is "what we want", and if Obama had been sincere in his campaign pledges then he knew perfectly well how to start that debate. But I don't at all see how $2.4 billion for FL and $0 for NEC is "what we want". Is proposing a bad plan, having it quickly fail (but not without a few million $ burned somewhere, to be sure), and letting Republicans fix it supposed to be shrewd progressive transportation planning?

Opening negotiations in the right place would have been a plan to modernize FRA regulations (to give a damn about rail, in other words) and to heavily invest in first-world rail service for the regions that are begging for it. Most states do not need or want that for themselves, but enough of them understand that metro-folk can pay an even greater portion of the country's tax burden if we are enabled to move around more efficiently. Otherwise how do we explain federal funding for a subway that barely travels an island, let alone a region?

Alon Levy said...

I have two counter-counter-criticisms, Cap'n:

1. HSR was barely 1% of the stimulus. In this context, it would be acceptable to say, "We'll spend money on other things in Wyoming and Nebraska, and dedicate HSR funds to corridors that are actually HSR." It boils down to something I've been saying for a while, which is that the selling point of HSR is sleek Japanese and French bullet trains, and if people have to settle for Amtrak trains averaging 60 mph, they won't support further construction.

2. Independently of money allocation, the Obama administration did nothing to reform the regulatory environment to make it friendlier to passenger trains. All lines with the exception of Florida and California were planned to be FRA-compliant, and even California has to deal with FRA meddling.