Walking On Water:
The Status of Rail Corridor Development
in The United States
Presented to the
November 8, 2000
Good afternoon. Thank you for that kind introduction, especially since I spoke here in Richmond only a few months ago to address the first High Speed Rail Conference here, which took place only one week before my own group, The National Corridors Initiative's, annual conference, and a few weeks after yet another conference on the same subject.
Now, a few of my friends in the rail industry have begun to say, "Jim, there are too many conferences!" and of course I sympathize with them for two reasons: they get asked to help pay for them, and I get asked to speak at them. I have to keep reminding myself that, as you heard if you caught my act last June here in Richmond, that I'm not a rail person at all, just a businessman who got stuck in an airplane one time too many on the way home to see his kid.
That's why I started my organization, not because of any kind of train fanaticism or hobby, but simply because it took me six hours to get home by plane from Newark to Boston one day back in 1989, whereupon I discovered that unless I wanted to drive, I had no real choice, because Boston-New York rail service took almost that long by the schedule --- a poor excuse for a rail system, I felt. So I began investigating the reasons, and wound up spending the last dozen years of my life trying to do something about better rail service, first in the Northeast and then, starting in 1994/1995, in the rest of the country, when my organization became the National Corridors Initiative.
I won't repeat the story here. Many of you know it, and a few others know it so well that I would be hanged if I went on with it, so let me just sum up: in the Northeast, we won.
The good guys won. Next week George Warrington has promised me a ride on the first official Acela Express Train, which then goes into regular service December 11. I'm looking forward to it. My organization has spent almost 12 years, and well over one million dollars, to buy that ticket. The new train knocks almost an hour and a half off the old schedule, and the speed will gradually increase over its break-in period until they get that down to three hours flat, Boston-NYC, and 2 and _ hours, NYC-Washington.
But that is just the start. It took 88 years to finish the electrification of the Northeast Corridor, in the face of wars, the Depression, and the Post WWII highway boom that until very recently has, along with air travel, sucked up almost every available transportation tax dollar. Indeed, until the Staggers Act was passed in 1980 to end freight railroad regulation, it looked like we might lose the freight railroad industry entirely. We already had had to create Amtrak, a decade before, to maintain some semblance of intercity passenger rail service, and Conrail, out of the pieces of the Penn Central and the various New England railroads, so that the highways in the Eastern United States wouldn't move to instant gridlock although we certainly are seeing signs of that gridlock again, today.
But while it took 88 years to finish the electrification of the Northeast Corridor, I am happy to report that the cause you are embarked upon here in Richmond and throughout the Carolinas and Georgia is not, I repeat NOT, an aberration. The creation of a Richmond-Washington High Speed Rail Corridor, the continual and impressive improvements to and investments in rail service in the Carolinas, and the aggressive new regional rail system in Georgia which will link up with South Carolina, will indeed create the foundation for a new Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor not just in name, but in reality.
As you will learn today at this conference and at other meetings and conferences over the next few years, and as you get your funding into place, you are a part of a growing national rail corridors movement which is already transforming America, and which will in my view be the salvation of our transportation system, of our cities, and of our essential national mobility, in the 21st century. The press still doesn't cover the story on a national basis, because as I said in June, unless we kill a busload of nuns at a grade crossing, we don't get network airtime. There are fewer and fewer volunteers for that, so we need to keep aggravating the journalists until they notice that the world beyond the crime-fire-mayhem headlines includes some good news, and you folks in Richmond are definitely part of the good news.
There are a lot of important things to know, and to do, as you go about the business of inventing a successful high speed rail corridor here in the Southeast, and I will try to tell you about some of them today as I update you on the corridor story. There are no real secrets, though. It will just take lots of hard work, and good luck. And oh yes --- bipartisanship. Now there's a word for the day after election day!
I noted above that in 1994 and 1995 I began to look around the United States, outside of the Northeast, to find out if there might be other people trying to achieve in their own regions what we were doing in the Northeast, which was trying to develop support for a regional rail corridors network that could help supplant highway and air travel as an option, and to relieve growing gridlock and winglock. Because we always had assumed that we were alone in this effort, I was amazed by what we found.
In the Pacific Northwest, centered on Seattle, I found a struggling but highly effective "Cascadia Project" which was developed by the Discovery Institute, a conservative pro-business think-tank that was concerned about highway congestion that was threatening to strangle business growth. In the Midwest, a left-leaning law firm, the Environmental Law & Policy Center determined to reduce air and water pollution, was a moving force behind the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative now comprised of nine states centering on Chicago. In North Carolina the impetus came from a very rail-oriented governor and rails department of the state DOT, who saw rail service, especially safer, faster rail service, as the key to surviving rapid economic growth that was overwhelming the transportation infrastructure in the Carolinas. In upper New York State I discovered a persistent citizens movement trying to get the Empire Corridor to emerge from years of neglect, allied with successful efforts by that state's DOT, and that is now seen as a key part of the economic revival of New York's Northern Tier. One of their new rehabbed turbo trainsets is here at this conference. In Mississippi, I heard about a progressive new mayor in Meridian who was making a proposed downtown transportation center and better rail service the core of his region's economic revitalization plans, and who also had the attention of the national leadership of one of the political parties.
As we began to discover these efforts, we realized immediately that we needed to get together as soon as possible and create a national organization in order to communicate with and learn from one another, and so we held our first national conference in 1996. Meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, about 150 representatives of regional corridor initiatives from around the country exchanged war stories, what had worked, and what hadn't, and laid out plans for the future.
While all this was going on pretty much at the citizen and state government level, the Federal government began to notice. ISTEA, authored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1991, contained provisions authorizing high speed rail corridors which could then receive federal funding, if any money ever became available, to improve track and to improve or remove grade crossings, which permits higher speeds even with conventional equipment. TEA-21, ISTEA's successor in 1997, designated some more corridors as official high speed corridors, and today we are up to 11 authorized and 10 designated.
While there are literally dozens of regional rail corridors trying to happen at this point, the best known are the ten Federally designated High Speed Rail Corridors, which are defined as rail corridors where speeds will exceed 90 mph. Although there has yet to be major Federal funding behind these corridor designations --- and that is something we can address today, because there is legislation pending in Congress right this minute that would provide $10 Billion in bonding authority over 10 years to get this work started --- the fact that a corridor is officially recognized ensures that when funding does come, Federal funding is more likely. And if Federal funding appears likely, state and regional commitments are easier to get.
Last month Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater designated two additional Federal High Speed corridors - one in New England from Vermont through New Hampshire and Massachusetts that will connect Boston to Montreal and to Portland, Maine, and one through Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, to connect Dallas/Fort Worth to Little Rock, Ark., and Tulsa, Okla.
The other Federal corridors are the Empire Corridor connecting upstate New York and Canada to New York City; California, which also has state-funded efforts that exceed Federal commitments to date; Pennsylvania's Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg and now, Pittsburgh too; Florida, which had a super high speed rail project that was canceled by Gov. Jeb Bush, but which is still eligible for Federally-defined High Speed Rail corridor money, and whose voters November 7 approved a ballot initiative ordering the state to support a new super High Speed Rail effort; the Cascadia Project corridor between Oregon, Washington and British Columbia; the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor involving Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida along the Atlantic Coast between Washington, DC, and Florida; on the Gulf Coast between Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama; and in the Midwest, with nine states linked via Chicago, and with a host of city pairs such as St. Louis-Chicago that will vastly improved rail service.
I've been asked to update you on the latest developments in the Corridor movement, and as this is a highly dynamic and complex situation I asked for help from a number of folks, so what you'll here next is due to help from Pat Simmons of North Carolina, Jack Guinan and Tim Truscott of New York State, Gene Skoropowski of California, Bruce Agnew of Seattle, Kevin Brubaker of Chicago, and John Cikota of the FRA. I am relying not only upon government stats but also many conversations and interviews, but still I can only offer a thumbnail sketch today:
Starting from West to East:
1. California --- California has major new rail service in its new Pacific Surfliner Corridor that replaced the San Diegans linking San Luis Obispo, LA, and San Diego, and the highly successful new Capital Corridor Service connecting Sacramento to both the San Jose and cities East of Sacramento.. The Pacific Surfliner trainsets are new, highly customer-friendly double-decker trains that make regular commuter trains look pretty old fashioned. Unfortunately, there is one fewer trainset as of right now, because earlier this week a truck decided it could beat the Surfliner to a grade crossing --- it lost the bet, but in the process destroyed about $10 million worth of equipment.
As I noted, these are just thumbnails, and more information is available on our website,
I want to add that in discussing each of these new rail corridors around the country, it is important that we remember a signal fact: all of these ambitious projects except for the Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor will run on rights-of-way belonging to the freight railroads.
And it is time --- it is past time, really --- for those of us who are in the business of advocating for better rail service to make sure that the freight railroads are at the center of any plans.
The freights spent many years getting out from under passenger service, and even now, although important people like John Snow are working to ensure that whatever happens actually works, we are laboring under some difficult conditions. We all want passenger service to run efficiently, safely, and on time. This means new capacity. Yet if the freights build new capacity - if they put down new tracks and signals --- the first thing that happens is that their local or state property taxes go up. Now, the last time I looked, Interstate 81 didn't pay taxes as it went through town. In fact, of course, it and the rest of the Interstates receive billions. Yet we want the freight railroads to not only accept more passenger trains, but to build the capacity maybe with some help --- to do so --- and then tax them on it. I propose the following: it is time to eliminate property taxes on freight railroads. And it is also time to extend serious help to capacity building in general. We spent billions on the best highway system in the world, we spent billions more on airports and air traffic control it is time in America to create a balanced transportation system, and invest in rail capacity just as we did in those other modes.
Right now, there is before Congress the High Speed Rail Investment Act, a bill providing $10 Billion in bonding authority over 10 years. While the states are committing hundreds of millions of dollars, we need to make this a national effort, just like the highway system and the air transportation system. It is not a matter of getting even, or even of fairness. While it is true that tax subsidies have gone primarily to highway projects, even highway departments are beginning to acknowledge that while good highways are a wonderful thing, they are not the ONLY thing!
Right now, Congressmen are in their home district recovering from yesterday. But next week they will head back to Washington for a rare lame duck session. The HSRIA is a part of the omnibus tax bill at the center of contention. The HSRIA has the support of more than 50 Senators and 175 House members. There is no reason it should not pass, but remember we're talking about Washington here, and relevance and fairness are not always part of the equation.
If it looks like the portions of the tax bill that are contentious remain so, an effort will be made to pull out non-controversial elements and put them in a new bill. The HSRIA should be a part of that new bill. So, watch Washington, stay in touch with your delegation, and tell them, if it looks like the omnibus tax bill will go down in flames, get the HSRIA out of there and pass it with the other bills that do have broad support. And be sure to tell the President --- whoever that might be - to support the corridor movement in the future. There's a lot riding on it.
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