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More federal rail money for state, and what about some train-building jobs?

Washington state on Thursday (Dec. 9) received a new award of $161 million in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail (HSR). The award represented part of a $1.19 billion pot of funds returned to the U.S. Department of Transportation by Wisconsin and Ohio, whose governors-elect have decided to kill their states’ HSR programs.

Thirteen other states shared in Thursday’s pot, with only California and Florida receiving more than Washington. Both California and Florida, unlike Washington, are poised to build “true HSR” corridors, where top speeds will exceed 150 mph.

“Future efforts will be broken between true HSR corridors and emerging intercity rail corridors,” comments Ray Chambers, transportation fellow at Seattle’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development. Chambers feels that the Pacific Northwest corridor, which runs from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., will get top priority among the so-called emerging corridors.

The semantics, arithmetic, and politics of HSR are changing fast in the wake of last month’s Republican victories at the polls. Florida Republican John Mica, who will soon take over the key post of chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has spoken of concentrating dollars on a very few true HSR corridors, with other routes perhaps getting second-tier attention.

Washington state has now received HSR awards — promises — totaling $782 million, but that may mean little, since the federal bureaucracy has not yet contractually committed, or “obligated,” a penny of the sum to Olympia. Passenger-rail advocates are concerned that any funds not obligated by year’s end may be recouped by the Congress that convenes in January, when newly empowered Republicans will be looking for ways to slash government spending.

“Some Republicans wanted it (HSR funding) to be an offset for the unemployment extension,” Chambers notes, referring to the tax-cut deal Republicans and President Barack Obama reached this week. “I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t get accepted. You’re never comfortable in this situation.”

Wisconsin’s withdrawal from HSR may ultimately yield another windfall to the Evergreen State. Spanish-based train builder Talgo had been setting up a manufacturing plant in Milwaukee, but with Wisconsin out of the HSR picture, the local market for Talgo’s trains has evaporated. One question posed by Thursday’s developments, says Cascadia director Bruce Agnew, “is whether we can convince Talgo to move its factory in Wisconsin and bring those manufacturing jobs to the Pacific Northwest.”

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