Follow the High-speed Rail Money: $8 Billion and 6 Years Later

Andrew Justus
by Andrew Justus

The year is 2010. Hope and Change still lingers in the air. The water in Flint, Michigan is passably safe to drink. And Donald Trump doesn’t have a single pledged delegate to his name.

This year saw $8 billion from the $831 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) appropriated to dozens of so-called “high speed rail” projects across the country. The projects were said to be “shovel-ready” — and some were — but many are still ongoing, er, creating jobs today.

The high-speed train money went to projects big and small, ranging from a few thousand dollars to spruce up a local Amtrak station to over $2 billion towards a TGV-style line from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Some projects focused on top and average speeds, others on congestion mitigation to help trains adhere to existing schedules.

Some of these projects never got off the ground, killed by newly elected state governments. Some are complete, carrying passengers quicker and with fewer delays. Most are still ongoing or partly complete.

Found on Rail Dead

Florida High Speed Corridor: On January 29, 2010, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, in a rare joint town hall, announced the administration’s national higher-speed rail grant program in Tampa, Florida. The Florida High Speed Corridor project would be dead just 13 months later.

At a total cost of $2.4 billion, the Florida High Speed Corridor — 84 miles of dedicated, high-speed rail line to be built from the ground up — was awarded $1.25 billion from the federal government to connect the cities of Tampa and Orlando. The high-speed rail project was slated to connect Orlando to South Florida, with the line terminating in Miami, in its second phase.

A little over a year later, then-newly elected Governor of Florida Rick Scott, would mark return to sender on the federal money bag and stop the project in its tracks.

“My concern with this is, you look at the ridership studies, and I don’t think there’s anyway anyone’s going to get a return,” Rick Scott told the Tampa Bay Tribune in 2011.

The federal funds were later reallocated to rail projects in other states. But Floridians still craving rail service are not without hope. A private-sector project called All Aboard Florida was proposed by Florida East Coast Railway in 2012. The service, called Brightline and owned by Florida East Coast Industries, is scheduled to begin operation in mid-2017 between Miami and West Palm Beach.

Madison to Milwaukee, Wisconsin: In January 2010, $823 million was awarded to build and launch 110 mile-per-hour service between Madison and Milwaukee, and to link it with existing the 79 mph, eight-times daily Milwaukee-Chicago service. The plan included use of tilting-train equipment from Spanish manufacturer Talgo, to be built and maintained at a facility in Milwaukee.

As early as February 2010, in the lead up to gubernatorial elections in the state, there were rumblings that Scott Walker, if elected, would kill the passenger rail project. Those rumblings turned into proclamations from the Walker camp during the campaign. In November, Walker was elected, and the train project suspended — permanently.

“I mentioned this repeatedly during the campaign,” Walker said. “That if push came to shove, even if it went to another state it was preferable to the taxpayers of this state being fixed with a bill that far exceeded our ability to pay and would take money away from other projects in this state.”

Walker wanted the $823 million awarded by the Obama administration to go to road improvements in the state, but no dice. All of the federal fast train money was returned and awarded to other states.

Two trainsets were built for the project before the contract was cancelled by the Walker administration, which spawned a lawsuit by the manufacturer for payment. In August 2015, the state of Wisconsin settled the lawsuit with Talgo to pay $9.7 million on top of nearly $40 million the state already paid for the trains. However, Talgo would keep the trains to sell to another state, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Ohio 3-C Corridor: Ohio was allotted $400 million in January 2010 to build and launch conventional 79 mph service between Cleveland and Cincinnati by way of Columbus. The 258-mile 3-C Corridor, as it was called, was expected to be in operation by 2012. The route would have carried 478,000 passengers per year on three daily round trips, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The same source pegged an annual state subsidy for the line at $17 million, or about 1 percent of the state’s transportation budget at the time.

Much like Wisconsin’s Walker, Ohio governor John Kasich campaigned with a promise to kill the train project. According to Politifact, Kasich claimed that while the service had a top speed of 79 mph, its average speed would only be 39 mph along the route. The slow average speed was based on an early plan drafted by the previous administration that saw the train slow down for a number of sharper turns. A later study and revision of that plan by the Ohio Department of Transportation, which took out some of those curves, quoted the average speed closer to 50 mph. Kasich continued to quote the 39 mph average speed during his campaign and, when he was elected, he kept his promise.

The 3-C Corridor project was cancelled in 2010.

As governor-elect, Kasich would send a letter to the Obama administration to request that rail funds be reallocated to infrastructure projects in the state. Instead, the money was allocated to rail projects in other states.

Vermont. Job Done.

Vermonter service improvement: Vermont is the home of the largest complete project to date. Federal funds contributed $52.7 million toward a modest $72 million project to speed service on the Amtrak route between Washington, D.C. and St. Albans, Vermont. The upgraded segment spans 181 miles between St. Albans and Battleboro, VT, and saw speeds increase to 79 mph along much of the segment. Travel time along the route was cut by 29 minutes, according to former transportation secretary Ray LaHood. The project was finished in 2012 and also enables freight trains along the route to haul heavier cargo.

In fiscal year 2012, before the improvements, the line carried approximately 82,000 passengers, according to the Brookings Institution. By the end of fiscal year 2015 last October, ridership climbed to 92,699, according to page A-3.2 of Amtrak’s 2015 performance report.

Creating Jobs Since 2010

Cascade Corridor: Among the still ongoing projects, the Cascade Corridor between Seattle and Portland received $590 million in 2010 to improve on-time performance and increase average speed. Washington State received an additional $161 million after governors in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio rejected fast train funds, according to the Seattle Times.

Among the upgrades was installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment and software. PTC prevents trains from speeding or ignoring signals by stopping a train automatically if the engineer/driver doesn’t respond to a warning tone. Experts say PTC prevents accidents like the one that derailed Amtrak train No. 188 in Philadelphia. The engineer of that train entered a top-speed-restricted 50 mph curve at 106 mph, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Federal regulations require PTC for passenger train speeds over 80 mph, which the Cascade Corridor may achieve in the future.

According to the Seattle Times, the 3 hour 25 minute trip from Seattle to Portland would be cut by 10 minutes after the upgrades. According to WS DOT, 10 of the 20 sub-projects in the program are complete, with the remainder expected to be done by 2017. Among the finished projects: a seismic retrofit of Seattle’s 110-year-old King Street Station and new trainsets from Spanish manufacturer Talgo that will allow increased speeds thru turns by tilting in corners.

California High Speed Rail Authority: The most ambitious high-speed train effort in the country seeks to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with a 220 mph, dedicated, high-speed line that will cross deserts and mountains in an effort to better connect the country’s most populous state. The $68 billion project was awarded $2.25 billion in federal funds in January 2010. Other funding comes from $9.95 billion in bonds authorized in a voter referendum in 2008, and though 25 percent of state carbon cap-and-trade revenue. According to an update in the Fresno Bee, the initial segment from San Jose to Bakersfield, California, will be hauling passengers by 2025.

The California High Speed Rail Authority recently amended its earlier plans to start service in LA and head north, to a strategy that begins in the Bay Area and moves south, for reasons of cost. Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, told the Sacramento Bee, “The southern segment is more costly, it’s longer, and tunnels just cost more.” Morales also cited long construction timetables in deciding not to lead off with the tunnel-heavy segment thru mountain ranges outside Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, voters in California are getting anxious. The project is exceeding earlier cost estimates and faces lawsuits from farmers and rural landowners, according to the Los Angeles Times. The project is also facing an effort by an organization representing farmers in the state’s Central Valley to redirect money from the state’s Proposal 1A fast train bonds to water storage projects that would feed more water to the state’s farming industry, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The effort is currently gathering petition signatures and may appear on the state’s November 2016 general election ballot.

Lincoln Service: In the midwest, the line from Chicago to St. Louis received $1.1 billion in federal funds to speed up existing 79 mph service to 110 mph, shaving 1 hour off the 5 hour and 38 minute trip in the process. The route carried 682,000 riders on four daily round trips in 2015, despite Amtrak occasionally substituting buses for trains in certain areas due to ongoing track work. In December 2012, the State Journal-Register newspaper in Springfield, Illinois, quoted IDOT’s Brian Williamson, “We don’t have 110 mph projections to pass along at this time.” He added that work was ongoing to install the advanced signaling system required to allow faster speeds along the whole route.

According to railroad industry trade publication Progressive Railroading, the project faces potential delays as planners must convince individual communities to close or upgrade some of the route’s 300 road crossings. Federal regulations limit the frequency of level road crossings where passenger trains travel over 90 mph to protect both train passengers and road users. Between 2000-2014, Amtrak trains struck 376 vehicles, ranging from sedans to semis, according to the Washington Post. The same story attributed 210 deaths to vehicle strikes; 14 were caused by derailments, collisions, and other accidents within the study period.

Wolverine Service: The route between Pontiac/Detroit and Chicago received $244 million in federal funds to upgrade two segments, while a 90-mile stretch in the middle is already operating with 110-mph top speeds.

The segment between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, Michigan, received $150 million to upgrade a dilapidated and delay-prone segment to handle speeds up to 110 mph. Delays on the segment due to poorly maintained track ranged from 45 to 90 minutes, according to Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

In 2011, the Michigan Department of Transportation used additional federal money made available from Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin’s rejections to acquire outright the 135-mile line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo from its owner, Norfolk Southern. As of this year, MDOT is bidding out contracts to perform track work along the line to replace rail and ties, much of it decades old, and regrade curves to allow for faster speeds. MDOT hopes to have the improvements complete to allow 110 mph service in three years, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer and industry publication Railway Age.

The segment from Porter, Indiana to Chicago received $71.4 million for eight separate congestion mitigation projects, mainly building bridges where trains entering Chicago from the south blocked those coming from the east. Most of these efforts are complete. Among the largest projects was the Englewood Flyover, where a bridge was built to allow 78 daily Metra Rock Island Line commuter trains to cross the line that carries 60 Norfolk Southern freight trains and 14 Amtrak trains every day without interference. The Englewood Flyover was completed in 2014.

Empire Corridor: In the east, the route from Buffalo to Albany and New York City received $151 million to increase speed. This objective has gone largely unrealized after negotiations between NYSDOT and track owner CSX Railroad broke down in 2011.

According to Politico, a lengthy environmental impact statement has been finalized and approved for the corridor outlining options ranging from status quo up to a $14.7 billion completely grade separated railroad with speeds up to 125 mph. Despite the grand plans, even the modest $1.66 billion plan stands little chance of becoming reality, according to Politico. Instead, plans to add a second main track between Albany and Schenectady are on schedule, with a completion target of December 2016, according to the Albany Times-Union. The second main track between those cities is expected to reduce delays caused by congestion in the area.

New York City, Pennsylvania Station: New York state received an additional $300 million rejected by Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin to reduce delays around Penn Station in New York City. The money went toward expanding underground walkways leading from Penn Station, under 8th Avenue, and newly expanded concourses under the James A. Farley Post Office building, according to the New York Times. The improvements will enable Amtrak to move its passengers out of the overcrowded Penn Station and into a facility within and under the disused James A. Farley Post Office building, according to the real estate news site Curbed. The move will also free up space for Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit commuters in the existing Penn Station.

As of December, 2015, project’s second phase is in limbo as the developers tasked with filling office space in the post office building, to defray costs of the train station below, struggle to lure tenants to the building, according to the Times.

Piedmont Corridor Improvement Program: The largest project in the south stretches from Raleigh, to Charlotte, North Carolina. It received $520 million in federal funds to install 31 miles of double track, add two daily round trips for a total of five trains in each direction spaced every three hours, as well as re-banking and straightening curves to increase average speeds along the 173 mile line. The project will see 40 road crossings replaced with 12 bridges to improve safety for motorists and train travelers, according to the Charlotte Observer. The newspaper also said travel time along the route has fallen by an hour over the past two decades, to 3 hours 10 minutes, and top speeds increased from 59 to 79 mph. Additionally, train stations in Cary, High Point, Burlington, and Kannapolis, North Carolina, will be renovated as part of the program. The Piedmont carried 161,487 passengers in fiscal year 2015, according to Amtrak records.

[Image: Chuck Kennedy/White House]

Andrew Justus
Andrew Justus

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  • Laserwizard Laserwizard on Mar 07, 2016

    Flint had no problem until 2014 when it switched from Detroit water supply to the Flint River which has highly corrosive water; since Flint chose not to add chemicals that would have reduced the corrosive nature in its water treatment, it was pound foolish and their choice of water supply caused the leaching of lead. This is a problem of stupidity of local officials and Detroit stopping selling water to Flint - you see Flint was going to do its own water thing and Detroit got wind of it. Chemical and Engineering news did a wonderful write up of this situation in February and it proves that the Democrats don't have a clue as to what they are talking about in their debate on Sunday. The Governor had nothing to do with any of this - it was all local officials!

    • Mopar4wd Mopar4wd on Mar 07, 2016

      The way I understand it (just based on media reports) was the city emergency manager (appointed by state government) was the one who both decided to move the water supply away from Detroit and not to add the anti corrosive treatments. The way it's been explained by those reporting Detroit raised their rates on the those outside the city which caused them to look elsewhere for water. Not sure if any of that's right but that's how almost every news outlet has reported it.

  • Thelaine Thelaine on Mar 07, 2016

    They know exactly what they are talking about, they are just lying.

  • ChristianWimmer The interior might be well-made, but the design is just hideous in my opinion. It’s to busy and there’s no simplistic harmony visible in it. In fact I feel that the nicest Lexus interior ever could be found in the original LS400 - because it was rather minimalistic, had pleasing lines and didn’t try to hard. It looked just right. All Lexus interiors which came after it just had bizarre styling cues and “tried to hard” if you know what I mean.
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  • FreedMike Hmmm, electric powered vibrations. Is this the long rumored move into products market?
  • MrIcky /Checks date on his calendar- nope, not April 1st.I have a transducer in my home theater seat for sub-bass. Not sure if this is patent worthy.