Back on Track: Northeast - High Speed Rail. Done Right.
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Less than two months remain before the anticipated late August shortfall of the Highway Trust Fund, and Congress does not appear to be any closer to finding a funding solution. A shortfall would put an end to transportation funding from the Federal Government that helps pay for road, highway, transit, and rail projects throughout the United States. In anticipation of the shortfall, some states have already begun postponing important infrastructure projects during the height of construction season, and states that have begun projects will be caught in the middle of construction with no money for completion if the fund runs dry.

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On April 25, the RPA Assembly, Regional Plan Association's annual conference, attracted nearly 1,000 people to discuss the most pressing issues facing the New York metropolitan region. Throughout the conference Northeast Corridor issues were in the spotlight. In his keynote address (VIDEO) U.S. Senator Chris Murphy discussed the importance of transportation in the regional economy, and the powerful impact access to transportation has on communities. He also emphasized on the importance of ensuring the needs of our most critical rail infrastructure are met, citing the recent RPA study that identified the $3.6 billion funding gap Connecticut needs to meet the most basic needs of the New Haven Line, the busiest rail line in America. Later in the afternoon, a breakout panel entitled "Getting Back on Track"  (AUDIO - MP3) with Amtrak President & CEO Joe Boardman, New York State Deputy Secretary of Transportation Karen Rae, New York City Commissioner of Transportation Polly Trottenberg, and RPA President Bob Yaro was devoted to discussing the path forward in terms of advancing the Northeast Corridor's most critical projects, including the Gateway Program and the redevelopment of Penn Station.

The panel's most sobering comments were by Joe Boardman, who described the severity of the deterioration of the North River Tunnels, which are over 100 years old. The storm surge that followed Hurricane Sandy flooded the tunnels with corrosive salt water for the first time ever, accelerating their deterioration. As a result, they will need long-term closure to make critical structural repairs and soon - in less than 20 years, Mr. Boardman said. Currently, maintenance is completed over the weekend in short bursts, which takes more time and adds significant expense. A new pair of rail tunnels, at our current pace, could take 25 years to complete, although they could take less than 10 years if we started today. The new tunnels would allow Amtrak and NJ Transit to operate while the existing tunnels are closed and rebuilt. Closing one or both of the existing tunnels and failing to build a new pair of tunnels would have a devastating impact on the regional economy as intercity and commuter rail operations from New Jersey would be crippled, and traffic would shift to other already-congested river crossings, such as the Lincoln Tunnel and PATH. The panel agreed on the need for cooperation from the entities necessary to move the Gateway Program forward, including Amtrak, the States of New York and New Jersey and New York City. Karen Rae suggested the establishment of a boiler room-type committee similar to what Governor Cuomo created to move the Tappan Zee Bridge project forward, where members of each agency would be sequestered in an office and given a singular mission - achieve necessary approvals and deliver the Gateway Program. Bob Yaro took this concept a step further and suggested this committee be institutionalized, where the agencies would enter into a joint venture as a new development corporation, as has been done many times in the past, e.g. Washington DC Union Station.

Audio from this panel (MP3).

More on this after the jump.

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If asked whether the Northeast Corridor is an asset to the region, the average individual that lives, works, or owns a business near the corridor would likely agree that the rail infrastructure which we currently rely on is a valuable asset. How else could a region with such a dense collection of housing and employment sustain itself if every individual relied on already congested highways for all their commuting and travel needs? We already know the Northeast Corridor carries 750,000 daily passengers, making travel and commuting in the region easier and more efficient. However, a quantitative understanding of the economic value that the Northeast Corridor brings to the region has always been lacking in the debate for infrastructure investment. What value does our current rail infrastructure represent in the economy? What value to the economy could be added if investment in stable, reliable, and high-speed rail infrastructure occurred? Thanks to the Northeast Corridor Commission, the first of those two questions has been answered. To answer the second, we may need to look to the UK for direction.

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Amtrak's latest budget request to Congress proposes a new funding structure that would allow lawmakers to better understand the true funding needs of Amtrak, thus providing them with a clear choice in how to support the railroad. In the past, Amtrak has been provided budgets that delineate operational and capital expenses, masking the success and failure of specific routes into an overall net operating loss. Amtrak is now proposing a more transparent funding structure that shows the true costs of Amtrak's various business lines, which illustrates the $300 million profit the Northeast Corridor (NEC) makes, and the loss at which the state-supported (below $100 million) and long-distance (over $600 million) routes operate. The budget request would allow Amtrak to end the subsidization of the money-losing routes with NEC profits and instead invest that money back into NEC capital projects with additional federal capital support. The routes that require federal operating subsidy, the state-supported and long-distance routes, would be funded separately thus giving lawmakers a choice to either continue Amtrak service as it exists today or cut the operation subsidy.

Ultimately, the budget is all about unbundling costs. The net operating loss caused by the federally-mandated long-distance routes should not be used as ammunition by lawmakers to limit or eliminate support for Amtrak. If the federal government wants Amtrak to continue operating the long distance routes, they should help fund the full cost of those routes. The NEC should not suffer because of the funding shortfalls of the less profitable corridors. Instead we should reinvest NEC profits into NEC assets to improve its infrastructure and allow it to continue to expand in the growing Northeast megaregion.

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On March 4th, President Obama revealed his $3.9 trillion fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which included a $302 billion, four-year reauthorization of the surface transportation bill, MAP-21. The reauthorization plan would provide a quick fix for the rapidly diminishing Highway Trust Fund with a one-time infusion of cash generated from closing loopholes in the corporate tax code. The trust fund is near insolvency mainly because the current federal gas tax, which has not seen an increase since 1993, is unable to sustain the fund. As the trust fund's balance approaches zero, the federal government will be forced to abandon its support of infrastructure projects across the country with devastating impacts on our economy. Our infrastructure is too important to be left to last-minute fixes that imperil us from year to year, we need a long-term solution that will improve our assets, build our economy and secure our future.

Reauthorization Roundup

usdot.jpgThe Reauthorization Roundup is a collection of news stories regarding the reauthorization of the surface transportation legislation, MAP-21, which expires on October 1st, 2014. This roundup of articles is especially salient due to the ongoing crisis regarding the Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to run dry this year (see the U.S. DOT's Highway Trust Fund Ticker).


Reauthorization Roundup

US chamber of commerce backs gas tax hike to fund highways
The Columbian | Laura Litvan | February 12

US business, labor leaders urge congress to raise gas tax
Chicago Tribune | Eric Beech | February 12

Understanding the highway trust fund and the perils of inaction
Center for American Progress | Kevin DeGood | February 20

Foxx: highway trust fund 'on track to bounce checks before FY 2015
Better Roads | Amanda Bayhi | February 21

The national infrastructure bank: a cure-all for america's woes?
Georgetown Public Policy Review | Dennis Lytton | February 26

Obama proposes $302 billion, 4-year reauthorization bill, announces availability of $600 million in TIGER grants
Better Roads | Amanda Bayhi | February 26

Camp proposal would fund transportation, waterways infrastructure
E&E Daily | Nick Juliano and Annie Snider | February 27

Obama budget seeks new spending, new taxes to boost economy, tame debt

Washington Post | Zachary Goldfarb | March 4

Transportation reauthorization funding mechanism may be settled
Planetizen | Irvin Dawid | March 6

Funding shortage could delay U.S. road, rail projects this summer
Reuters | Elvina Nawaguna | March 12

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