Final Stimulus Bill Slaps Transit Riders in the Face

The final tally is in, and we now have a breakdown for transportation funding in the stimulus bill that President Obama will sign, barring some unforeseen turn of the screw. Via Transportation for America:

  • $29 billion for highways and bridges
  • $8.4 billion for transit
  • $8 billion for high-speed rail
  • $1.3 billion for Amtrak

To compare the final transit and rail figures with the House and Senate versions of the bill, check out the table put together by the Transport Politic.

The big news, of course, is the $8 billion for high speed rail, most of which came from out of nowhere. And I’d be quite pleased with that number if it weren’t for the meager sum allocated to transit. Of the four categories cited above, transit is the only one to emerge from conference committee without any bump up from the Senate’s lowball offer. The endgame went something like this, according to the AP:

In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid,
D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines,
quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Reid’s office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.

That Presidential muscle could have been flexed to stave off fare hikes and service cuts across the country, giving the economy a very fast-acting stimulus. This last-minute intervention, on the other hand, is more than a little puzzling. Among other headscratchers: How does getting people to the slots an hour faster move us closer to ending sprawl?

  • Larry Littlefield

    And the lesson is?

    At least we won’t be paying as much to subsidize new SUVs and McMansions. But we and our children will be paying forever for the existing ones, via mortgage write downs and bailouts which, at $2.5 trillion, will dwarf what was done here.

    The generations in charge realize the ship is going down, because they are sinking it, and are grabbing what they can before it’s too late. But as long as they can’t stop me from riding a bicycle, there is a limit to how much damage they can do to me on THIS issue.

  • Well said, Larry. The cynicism of those robbing the till in a burning store is appalling.

    The HSR money passes because it is not a direct threat to autosprawl. Few will ride because they will still need their car at destination, management will be hamstrung by uneven operational funding, and it will be “proven” to be a boondoggle.

  • rex

    So how many miles of HSR does $8,000,000,000 build? Is that SF to Bakersfield?

  • MSmart

    “So how many miles of HSR does $8,000,000,000 build? Is that SF to Bakersfield?”

    No. JFK to Wall Street. Or ten five mile stubs starting and ending in cornfields and Walmart parking lots.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    More like LA to Barstow if Harry Reid has his say.

    Surely he’ll fight for maglev from LA to Vegas (as opposed to the CA plan recently approved by CA voters).

    >So how many miles of HSR does $8,000,000,000 build? Is that SF to Bakersfield?

  • Ray

    You’d have trouble finding a bigger rail proponent than me. Yet I can’t imagine I’d be alone in my distress if our first foray into true HSR in our history leads us to NEVADA! There is no corridor LESS worthy of HSR investment than Anaheim to Las Vegas. There is barely a living creature between these two sprawling messes – the entire path is a scorching desert. It’s 100% probably that there will never be an interim stop needed. Sure, the ROW will be cheap (umm, free) – its all empty Federal land.

    The winners – political, pocket lining, profiteering casinos (who should pay for most of it) and the mega-contractors that will hire the questionably credentialed low cost construction labor (now idle) waiting to build it. And its not really a fair deal for California either, as the only jobs that will be supported by this massive boondoggle will ultimately be IN NEVADA – they have always been on the ‘receiving end’ of the relationship. Dollars flow ONE WAY. These jobs are of the VERY LOW paying hotel and restaurant variety. Sorry is true. This line isn’t about investing in our future or the new green economy. It’ll be a line that’s used on Friday and Sunday nights – and will be empty every other day of the week. There will be very little benefit to the national economy long term. And the only noise you are going to hear is that sucking sound of dollars leaving California.

    Don’t expect airlines to take this one laying down either. Vegas is all ready volume business. And once can’t imagine how airlines make a dime. Flights between the cities are are less than 60 minutes and are virtually FREE right now ($60 each way) with nothing but capacity in this city pair with 737 flights every 20 minutes (on multiple carriers!).

    Look, we have all ready wasted BILLIONS paving the desert sands and building the grandest airport cathedral of the desert (McCarran Int’l airport) all so Angelinos can go blow their home equity lines at the craps tables.

    Worse, this project is not even on the State of California’s radar for diesel service!!!! If this gets any more than ‘planning money’ for a private-public partnership I’m going to throw up. This better not be payback to Harry Reid for those 5 electoral votes.

  • Ray

    My bet: $8 billion will be enough to get CAHSR, Midwest HSR and NEC HSR started this year or next. Final engineering and some ROW acquisition perhaps some construction on initial segment(s). States will have to chip in. This is going to be a long term massive Federal investment.

  • Is there a more fitting metaphor for the downward spiral we’re locked into than the idea that getting people to casinos more quickly is some sort of economic stimulus?

  • LA to Vegas? That’s got to be a joke or something. Ah, politics.

  • Danny G

    Hey, I’ll be optimistic and think of the High Stakes Rail as a pilot program to get Americans sexed up about taking trains.

  • gecko

    If the $8.4 billion transit is appropriated for public bike system transit it would be a big win. Unfortunately, it is business as usual, status quo, same old stuff . . .

  • I haven’t seen the language in the bill, but I’m hoping that this “high speed rail” will be a bait-and-switch that ultimately favors transit.

    The money could be restricted to high-speed rail of the TGV kind – as currently planned by California – which builds completely new tracks on new right-of-way that is unavailable to any other trains. But even that has some “last mile” improvements to get the high-speed trains to existing stations, and many high-speed passengers will probably ride transit or regional rail to get to and from the high-speed trains, boosting ridership.

    What’s more likely is that much of the infrastructure built for “high speed” trains will be usable by conventional passenger trains and commuter trains. People are already talking about using the stimulus money to rebuild the second track between Albany and Schenectady. And does the Portal Bridge used by the Acela trains count towards our high-speed network? So this $8 billion could potentially improve not just the travel time from LA to San Francisco, but also from Albany to Schenectady and Penn Station to Newark.

  • Also, this basically guarantees that no transit money will be used for anything intercity-related, ensuring that that money is available for city and rural transit.

  • It’s important that the high-speed rail stations are built in the city centre. Otherwise they will contribute to sprawl just like an airport does. With a central station, high speed rail is a powerful force for urban, walkable development.

  • Transit Worker

    Hi. Outside of NYC, here in North Carolina, while we would have loved to see more dollars for transit, we’re thrilled with this outcome.

    We have been funding high-speed rail development (okay, 110 mph medium-speed rail, but still) on our own for years, being ignored by the feds. We have fast-growing intercity rail ridership and transit ridership is growing.

    You already have the Acela and NEC, so you don’t need HSR to link your cities for business and tourism travel at better than auto speeds dozens of time each day. We do. We want better access to the NEC ourselves. We’d like you to come visit us. College basketball season is a blast down here.

    And every additional time I can take a train to do business or visit friends in Charlotte, Richmond, Greensboro, or DC, I’m more likely to take transit once I arrive because I didn’t have to use a car to get to the city in the first place.

    BTW, the HSR we are working on will incorporate a bike facility that is hundreds of miles long – how’s that for multimodal?

    This bill really helps us get there. We want to win on transit, too. Let’s gear up for SAFETEA-LU reauthorization and get started now pushing for more transit.

    I too, will wretch if Vegas gets money first. The core of the CA projects, VA/NC, and the Midwest are where the money should be going for these projects.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    High Speed Rail as a system can only succeed to the extent that it connects with a greater rider network, national rail (AMTRAK) and local transit (badly short-changed by this bill and facing enormous micro and macro economic problems in the States, Cities and Authorities).

    What drove this legislation was the same Federal political dynamics that have screwed AMTRAK over since its inception. The need for national consensus in the Senate forces fiscal largesse into travel markets where the operation of trains is very problematic, due in large part to population density (or lack thereof). When the localities have to pitch in to support the operation of these systems the political pressure from the states and localities cuts funding for operating budgets. There is much greater resistance on the state and local level.

    What we have is a mass transit system in crisis throughout the country from suburban bus systems to commuter rail to urban mass transit to AMTRAK. Onto this budget crisis this bill grafts 8 Billion in capital funds for an entirely different system that does not exist. Meanwhile the riders of the existing system (mostly actual poor people) are left to fend for themselves.

    I guess this is a “change”.

  • Rhywun

    It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would even consider building HSR and then plop the stations in the middle of nowhere. If that were the case, I simply wouldn’t ride it. Many Amtrak stations are *already* located in cornfields–Syracuse, for example–so it could happen.


    I agree. I’d rather see the 8 bln used to fix existing transit.

  • Ryan

    The high-speed rail money didn’t come out of nowhere. Obama campaigned on it. Kind of a lot actually. I think that was what was behind his appointment of Ray LaHood to transportation. I also wonder what happens when you drill down on these figures. I gather that $29 bil for highways and bridges is more like discretionary spending that can (and in many places will) be diverted to transit. It would be difficult to put the money directly into things like transit or Amtrak, because, as Michael Dukakis recently pointed out, even 1 bil is an unfathomable amount of money lying around even for Amtrak so it’s unlikely there’s more than a few billion dollars of shovel-ready projects that will be completed in less than a few years even available.

    You know what’d be nice though? Subway stations in New York and Chicago that weren’t complete shitholes

  • In the last election, California voters approved a $10 billion bond for High Speed Rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This system would reduce ghg emissions dramatically by shifting trips from airplanes to HSR (which emits only one-sixth as much co2 per passenger mile).

    This CA system could be the beginning of a huge change in direction of the national transportation system, adding HSR into a mix that is now just airlines and freeways.

    The total cost of the system is supposed to be $32 billion, and they are hoping for more funding from the federal government and private investors. This stimulus provision will help.

    The balance is much better than past federal funding:
    # $29 billion for highways and bridges
    # $17.7 billion for transit and rail
    while the traditional split has been 80-20.

    As I have said before, you cannot expect very dramatic change in a stimulus bill passed in a rush to deal with an economic crisis, so this balance is better than I expected.

    Hopefully, we will do even better when TEA reauthorization comes up.

    (PS: when I said HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I was giving the NY perspective on the route – like the Steinberg cartoon where there is nothing west of the rockies except SF and LA. For more precise info, google California High Speed Rail)

  • Also, check out
    which is linked in today’s SF Streetsblog but not in this NY Streetsblog.

    I am surprised to see all the opposition to HSR on this blog. I thought people in NY were ahead of people in CA when it came to transportation.

  • anonymous

    I’m laughing at the CNN page which continues to call it “inner-city” rail instead of “intercity”.

    I’m all for HSR over regional jets.

    Interesting to note though, James Howard Kunstler mentioned that you could once travel pretty long distances across the country on streetcars alone — that’s how extensive and connected the electric rail system was circa 1900-1920.

  • I think what Kunstler actually said was that you could travel from Boston (or was it New York City?) to Chicago entirely on streetcars except for two 20-mile stretches in Upstate New York. Of course, you’d have had to change trains a lot, and heavy rail would have been a more practical option — but as an indication of how complete our streetcar systems once were, it’s an awesome thought. It almost hurts to think of it now, considering the hostile territory our landscape has since become.

  • “I thought people in NY were ahead of people in CA when it came to transportation.”

    I think people in NY are more aware (through travel, cultural exchange) of how other countries have built faster and faster rail within popular and well-funded regional and national railroad networks. They don’t have “high-speed rail” as much as they have modern, cultivated rail of many speeds. Meanwhile, in America, everything about the political process that produced this lopsided allotment screams amateur hour, from Obama’s campaign droppings of “HSR” (with no specifics) to the hazy definition of the phrase itself.

    I am hoping for a bait-and-switch that speeds train travel to upstate New York and other regions that will make good use of any service upgrade.



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