Washington state rolling along on high-speed rail

An Amtrak train arrives in Bellingham (2008). Credit: Sue Frause/Crosscut Flickr group

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.”

The FRA told crosscut.com in October that it aimed to have all of the $8 billion obligated by Dec. 31, which happens to be when Democratic control of the House ends. Last week, FRA spokesman Rob Kulat refused to comment on how many pending awards might be obligated by Dec. 31, saying only that “there will be more going out,” With the deadline approaching, the only certainty is uncertainty — and Washington state rail advocates, not surprisingly, hear footsteps.

“We want it (Washington’s HSR money) to go from ‘promised’ to ‘obligated,’ ” says Lloyd Flem, executive director of the advocacy group All Aboard Washington. “We can make it one more step difficult to rescind.”

Clouding the crystal balls still further is the possibility that as many as three states will voluntarily send huge awards of HSR money back to the nation’s capital. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, which all told have been promised over $3 billion in federal HSR money, incoming Republican gubernatorial candidates have either looked askance at HSR projects or even committed themselves to sending the money back are about to take office. Not surprisingly, this pot of cash is drawing a fight, too. “Sure,” Republican House communications official Harclerode says, “Congress could do something with the (returned) money legislatively — recover it (for the U.S. Treasury), repurpose it, anything.”

In the other corner, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has stated that any returned money will be passed on to other states that remain willing — indeed, altogether eager, in many cases — to put the money toward its original purpose. In the wake of the news from Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin, at least six states have told LaHood they would happily accept a share of what they view as billions from heaven. Gov. Chris Gregoire put Washington state in the queue on Nov. 22, with a letter addressed “Ray” and signed “Chris.” “Please consider us for any potential reallocation,” the governor wrote, “given our strong record of investment and performance.”

Democratic Congressman Rep. Rick Larsen, who represents the northwest part of Washington state, has likewise appealed to Hood for a portion of any returns, noting in a Nov. 17 letter that three HSR projects within his district could use the funds immediately. WSDOT spokeswoman Melanie Coon says the department has provided the entire congressional delegation with “as much information as possible” to write letters like Larsen’s, but is unaware of any other member of the state’s delegation who had done so.

While Wisconsin, Florida, or Ohio’s “Refused — Return to Sender” stance presents opportunities for programs such as Washington’s, prospects for future funding are much dicier, at least for most of the nation’s HSR corridors. With the House’s shift to Republican control, the national program, a Democratic initiative from the start, will likely be cut back to a very few routes, and there’s a good chance that the lucky ones will not include the Pacific Northwest HSR corridor.

Who those few will be depends largely on the judgment of Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who will take over the gavel at the House’s Committee on
Transportation and Infrastructure in January and who might be viewed as the weak congressional link in the current HSR program’s chain of support. Mica has spoken repeatedly about concentrating on “true HSR,” meaning services operating routinely at 150 mph or more, and thus pruning the HSR program back to a select few among the current 11 corridors, which sprawl over almost 10,000 route miles.

Speaking for Mica, Harclerode told Crosscut that the congressman “has felt that by not focusing on just one or a couple of HSR corridors, we very well may have lost an opportunity to see HSR become a success in the U.S.” When asked if that meant Mica would focus on the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor, as he has publicly implied, and only one other route, Harclerode said, “I don’t know that yet.”

Politically, the corridor running south from the nation’s capital seems well-positioned to meet Mica’s criteria, and thus to push other wannabes further down, or off, the list. The route slices across the Virginia congressional district of Eric Cantor, soon to become the House majority leader. He has supported HSR – at least for his district – stating in an April 2009 letter to LaHood that “high-speed rail provides a sensible and viable solution to our region’s transportation challenges.”

Commenting on Mica’s likely picks, Cascadia’s Chambers says, “He’d like to put resources into two or three true, European-type high-speed corridors, which could include Florida, California, the Las Vegas-Southern California route and most importantly the Northeast Corridor. The Pacific Northwest will not be one of those corridors, near-term. However, there will be bipartisan support for an upgrade of emerging corridors that are now advancing with ARRA funding.”

The dealer, in other words, is reshuffling the deck. Still, the solid history of Washington state’s HSR program, which dates to 1994, leaves people like Chambers and WSDOT’s Wood feeling confident. The passenger rail program began well before the Obama initiative, and can continue without it, and its goal has always been high-speed service.

Some additional trouble may loom on another horizon. A 2008 federal law will very likely oblige states to underwrite 100 percent of operating subsidies for the Amtrak system’s shorter-distance trains by late 2013. At present, using its dedicated funds, Washington pays the entire subsidy for both Seattle-Vancouver (B.C.) trains and all the Seattle-Portland trains except one, which Amtrak underwrites. While the intent of the statute is subject to interpretation, WSDOT’s Wood anticipates that the state will have to pick up the bill for that last train, plus certain related national-system costs that Amtrak has borne thus far.

The best information puts the added bill at $4 million to $6 million yearly. Wood feels “optimistic” that Olympia will be able to cover the higher level of expenditure with its current funding — roughly $16 million a year — since ridership and thus passenger revenues on the trains are growing, so that the subsidy any train needs keeps falling. Taking money away from other recipients of the dedicated funds would thus be unnecessary.

Woods reports that the Seattle-Portland trains are running between 75 and 80 percent full — a very high so-called load factor — while the Seattle-Vancouver trains have a more ordinary load of just under 50 percent. Cost recovery (the portion of costs covered by tickets and onboard food purchases) stood at 46 percent in 2008 and 54 percent in 2009, and will likely reach a robust 60 percent in 2010 for all trains north of Portland. Ridership for the entire Eugene-Vancouver corridor has grown 10 percent since 2008, well ahead of the growth of less than 2 percent recorded by all corridor trains nationwide over the same period.

So how does it all add up — the firm financial base of the existing state program, the “Washington giveth, Washington taketh away” message from Congress, and the prospect that Amtrak will no longer cover any of the Pacific Northwest corridor trains’ subsidy?

“I think the corridor is in pretty good shape,” Cascadia’s Chambers sums up. “I don’t believe the momentum is going to stop.”

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