House Hearing Shows Partisan Divide on High-Speed Rail

House Hearing Shows Partisan Divide on High-Speed Rail

May 07, 2021  | Jeff Davis

A hearing before the House Railroads Subcommittee yesterday revealed sharp partisan division over high-speed rail in general and over two ongoing projects in particular.

The hearing had an unusual title: “When Unlimited Potential Meets Limited Resources: The Benefits and Challenges of High-Speed Rail and Emerging Rail Technologies.” The part about “limited resources” seemed to be a tacit admission that (a.) the $20 billion proposed by President Biden for non-Amtrak intercity passenger rail in his American Jobs Plan is probably the upper boundary of what might be possible as a one-time boost above baseline in an infrastructure bill, and (b.) $20 billion, nationwide, does not make a dent in the cost of the (somewhat fanciful) national high-speed rail network that railfans dream of.

The hearing featured no less than a dozen witnesses, spread across two panels. Many witnesses were representing proposed projects (click on their names and get their prepared testimony):

  • California HSR project– John Porcari, former Deputy Secretary of Transportation, spent most of his time at the hearing talking in support of the project, possibly because no one from the California High Speed Rail Authority testified. (5/8/21 update: see this POLITICO article for reasons why no one officially representing the project was invited.)
  • Texas Central project – Carlos Aguilar, President and CEO of Texas Central, testified, as did an opponent, Trey Duhon, the county judge of Waller County, Texas.
  • Brightline West project – Michael Reininger, CEO of Brightline Holdings, testifed.
  • Cascadia Corridor project – Rachel Smith, CEO of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, testified.
  • Northeast Maglev project – Wayne Rogers, chairman and CEO of Northeast Maglev, testified.
  • Hyperloop – the hearing was blessed with not one, but two pro-Hyperloop witnesses: Josh Geigel, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop, and Andres de Leon, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Four other witnesses spoke more generally:

  • William Flynn, CEO of Amtrak.
  • Andy Kunz, CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.
  • Phil Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
  • Danielle Eckert, international representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

In addition to any partisan divides, there is an inherent regional divide. The only place where the U.S. currently operates trains that are anywhere close to high speeds are along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and D.C., which is also the place where you have the most population density along a long linear distance (which makes rail travel work efficiently). Then, there is the rest of the country.

The new chairman of the Railroads Subcommittee, Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), is naturally a Northeast Corridor guy, and his opening statement focused on the possibilities raised by this line in the Amtrak CEO’s written testimony: “Amtrak has identified investments, collectively projected to cost approximately $50 billion, that would enable Acela trains to operate at 160 mph on approximately 333 of the 457 miles between Washington and Boston and increase maximum speeds on the Metro-North segment to 125 mph. This would reduce trip times on express Acela trains to approximately two hours between New York City and Washington and two hours and 30 minutes between New York City and Boston.”

The chairman of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio (D-OR), is from the other side of the country, and spoke of the current Amtrak Cascades service between his hometown of Eugene and Portland, where the train currently uses trainsets that are capable of 120 miles per hour, but the nature of the track means it takes three hours to go 124 miles (an average of just over 40 miles per hour) paralleling Interstate 5. DeFazio said that the dream would be one-hour service, but even reliable two-hour rail service would take a tremendous number of drivers off I-5. DeFazio also criticized the Biden plan for not spending enough on high-speed rail.

Generally speaking, what followed was Democrats asking questions that were designed to make high-speed rail look good, while Republicans complained about the California and Texas projects. Opposition to the California project, the problems with which are summarized here, is pretty universal in the national GOP as well as in the state. But the opposition to the Texas Central project by Texas Republicans was not necessarily expected in the beginning.

By contrast, everyone seemed to like Brightline, which is operating one line in south Florida at present (and expanding it to Orlando by next year) and trying to build another from Las Vegas to somewhere near Victorville, California.

After a couple of initial complainants, Republicans took the rest of the first panel off, and new panel member Seth Moulton (D-MA) took the gavel from Payne for a while. Moulton recently joined T&I because he may be HSR’s number-one fan in the House, and it showed in the way that he kept adding his own pro-HSR comments between recognizing members to ask questions.

The virtual nature of the hearing made it difficult for members to follow up on questions asked by earlier witnesses, and Republicans for some reason took about 90 minutes off from participating in the latter part of the first panel. But no one asked one key question. There was much discussion of how high-speed rail would lower emissions by taking cars off the road for intercity trips over the next 50 years. The key question is, what assumptions were made about the average emissions per mile of cars on the road in 2030, 2040, and 2050? If the Biden Administration is successful in its quest to get most internal combustion engines off the roads decades before anyone as recently as two years ago thought possible, doesn’t that mean that those estimates of emissions reductions attributable to HSR are meaningless? (In a world of all-electric cars, HSR would still fight traffic congestion, but would make no real difference to emissions.)

Amtrak Trust Fund. Flynn and Porcari both spoke of Amtrak’s need for multi-year funding certainty for its capital subsidies, and said that a new federal trust fund would be the best way for that to happen. However, trust funds are supposed to be based on the user-pay, user-benefit system. The Airport and Airway Trust Fund pays for most airport and air traffic control funding, and it is supported by taxes on the price of airline tickets and the use of airport facilities. The Highway Trust Fund built the entire Interstate Highway System on the backs of highway users, who paid gasoline, diesel and trucking excise taxes. (The Trust Fund since 2008 has been an unbalanced mess, but everyone who says high-speed rail is the next Interstate system needs to look at how the Interstate was funded, not what is happening post-Interstate.)

Neither Flynn nor Porcari recommended a specific tax or fee to fund an Amtrak Trust Fund. Under the user-pay, user-benefit system, the logical way to fund an Amtrak Trust Fund would be with a federal tax on Amtrak tickets. But what good would it do for the federal government to levy a $10 tax on a ticket on the Sunset Limited and deposit that in an Amtrak Trust Fund, when the federal government is already paying Amtrak from the general fund to cover a $350 per passenger operating loss on that route? (Ed. Note: From a truth-in-budgeting perspective, the federal government should be getting rid of trust funds that are not truly user-pay, user-benefit, not creating more of them.)

Also, Congress almost gave Amtrak its own trust fund once, in 1997. Here’s how that turned out.

Workforce development. Phil Washington (former member of Eno’s Board of Directors) made a point of discussing the “Center for Transportation Excellence” that L.A. Metro wants to help build to “host a vast complex where manufacturers and suppliers can work together – using American labor” to build the next generation of passenger railcars and locomotives. (Not just “assemble” then from from components that are often made overseas – “build” them from the ground up in the U.S.) One can see Washington’s imprint on the workforce sections of Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

In addition, Eckert from IBEW testified that construction of new HSR infrastructure should continue to be subject to Davis-Bacon prevailing wage and Buy America rules and that new operational jobs in HSR and related modes like Hyperloop should continue to be subject to the Railway Labor Act and the Railroad Retirement Act.

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