High-speed rail has become a whipping-boy for congressional Republicans intent on picking away at what they perceive as federal spending run amok, but Washington state, which boasts one of the nation's oldest state passenger-rail programs, appears poised to survive this downturn in passenger rail's political fortunes.
"I'm enthusiastic" is the pithy assessment of Andrew Wood, deputy director for operations at the Rail and Marine Office at the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
The threats faced by passenger rail include congressional Republicans' threat to rescind billions in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds already appropriated for high-speed rail (HSR) projects, and the likelihood that Republican control of the House will lead the incoming Congress to shut off most of the HSR spigots. Adding spice to the situation are the possibility that up to three states will refuse to accept billions in HSR funds already awarded to them, and a looming federal requirement that states pay a greater share of subsidies for shorter-distance “corridor” trains — such as those now partially sponsored by WSDOT in the so-called Pacific Northwest corridor, which runs from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.
HSR seems to have escaped being tossed into the initial deal on tax cuts between congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama, but HSR's congressional backers still have plenty of row to hoe.
Passenger rail's prospects in Washington thus look generally good, however, even as the troubling winds swirl overhead. Within state government, Washington's program is relatively well-protected because it is funded by a dedicated revenue stream from automobile licensing fees and rental-car taxes. Other public-transportation providers, including Washington State Ferries and local transit systems, share the dedicated funding. The legislature may soon find it necessary to slash all manner of spending in the general fund to balance the upcoming state budget, but, in Wood's words, “that doesn't necessarily affect us.”
By contrast, many if not most of the other 14 states with passenger rail programs have to go to their legislatures for general-fund outlays. Other states have simply hopped on the Obama administration's HSR bandwagon without any experience in running trains.
Congressional rescission of already-appropriated HSR funds poses the nearest-term threat. “The move would face some challenges”, says Justin Harclerode, Republican communications director for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which oversees rail programs. It would probably hit a wall in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and even if it got through to the president's desk, would face an almost certain veto there.
Beyond rescission of already-appropriated funds, however, the plot thickens further. The agency administering the HSR dollars, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), has been handing out the cash at a snail's pace. At present, of the $8 billion in the original round of HSR funding, the FRA as of Dec. 3 had "obligated" just over 20 percent — that is, committed it contractually to the recipient states. In the opinion of Ray Chambers, a transportation fellow for Seattle-based Cascadia Center for Regional Development who works primarily in the other Washington, Congress cannot claw that money back, since it belongs to the states. Harclerode views the possibility as "difficult." Still, the Beltway insider website innobriefs.com says that "congressional GOP aides are reported to be reviewing agency records to identify particular stimulus-funded projects that could still be 'reasonably' killed because work on them is only beginning."
Far more vulnerable to rescission are the billions already awarded — promised — to the recipients, but not yet obligated. And it is that category in which every penny of Washington state's federal HSR money is languishing. Chambers sees such a rescission as "unlikely," but nonetheless a palpable threat. "There’s clearly going to be an effort by the House Republicans to roll all unobligated ARRA funding into deficit reduction. There's a lot of momentum from the Tea Party, and rail is right in the crosshairs." Still, he adds, "The Patty Murrays of the world don’t want to see that happen."
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