TIFFS: Do voter-approved-rail-project-funds ‘road-blocks’ serve well the public?

Number seven in the Transport in a Fine Fix Series.

When I last left off in number six in the Transport in a Fine Fix Series (“TIFFS: The right route when the going gets tougher?”) I discussed what effect work stoppages and natural disasters, to name but two, would likely have on mobility. Here is what I concluded:

NewOrleansHUDRedStreetcarRiverfrontCanal[1]“What all of this boils down to is identifying the mode or modes that do a better job of moving masses of people with less environmental impact both under normal and exceptional circumstances. Then, to move forward with greater implementation of and reliance on such, just makes sense!”

As it relates, today, I ask the question: Is stopping already voter-approved and partially or fully funded in-the-works rail transportation infrastructure projects, proper and prudent?

The short answer: No.

In going somewhat deeper there are three such projects I believe are worth looking at: the California and Florida high-speed rail and Cincinnati, Ohio streetcar projects.

After Florida’s current Governor Rick Scott was elected, turned away was $1.25 billion in economic stimulus funds that had been designated by the Obama Administration for national high-speed rail projects. The rejected funds went back into the high-speed rail funding kitty. The approximate 84-mile-long line, which was to link Orlando and Tampa, was to be built in the median of Interstate 4. Meanwhile, private enterprise is backing the 240-mile-long All Aboard Florida quasi-high-speed passenger rail endeavor currently underway which will tie together Miami and Orlando. Trains will operate at speeds in the 110-mile-per-hour range on shared freight/passenger railroad tracks, as I understand it.

So, instead of the proposed 186-mile-per-hour-capable high-speed train connecting Orlando and Tampa seeing the light of day, what is now advancing in Florida is, like I said, a quasi-high-speed train that will ply rails on the state’s east coast linking together the former with Miami. The way I see it, All Aboard Florida although not true high-speed, is definitely not a train to nowhere, I can tell you that!

What was, at times, derided as a “train to nowhere,” on the other hand, is California’s high-speed-rail plan. The planned total 800-mile-long endeavor which is to bridge San Francisco and Sacramento with Los Angles, Anaheim and San Diego by way of the San Joaquin Valley, is moving ahead – although slowly. Ground on the system has yet to officially be broken but preliminary work in the Valley has already begun and it is in connection with the initial 29-mile stretch between Madera and Fresno in the state’s central region.

Some argue the $3.2 billion federal infusion into the project can stand, others contend it cannot. As far as I’m concerned, the matter has yet to be fully resolved.

“Plaintiffs attorney Stuart M. Flashman of Oakland argued that [Sacramento Superior Court] Judge Michael P. Kenny also should erect a roadblock on the planned Los Angeles-to-San-Francisco line,” wrote Andy Furillo in The Sacramento Bee. “His main concern is that the state has already allocated federal funds in a way that he says violates the fine print of 2008’s voter approved Proposition 1A.” California Proposition 1A is known as the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century.

Added Furillo: “Asked by Kenny what the consequence would be to the [California High-Speed Rail] authority if he invalidated the funding plan, Deputy Attorney General Michele Inan said, ‘There’s no effect to the authority.’ The funding plan, she said, is part of the legislative process, and lawmakers in July 2012 allocated $2.6 billion of the $9.95 billion in bond funding voters approved for the rail project.”

California’s high-speed train is to traverse two of this country’s most notorious offender regions for air pollution – the South Coast (Los Angeles and environs) and San Joaquin Valley air basins. It is my belief that if patronized sufficiently enough, the train will be a tremendous asset when it comes to helping mitigate the state’s damaging, deleterious and deplorable air pollution problem. Without it, the likelihood exists there will be greater reliance on motor vehicles and aviation to meet moderate- and long-distance transportation and travel needs – modes with the increased potential to drive up fossil fuel usage in state.

Should the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus funds allocated for California high-speed rail go the way of those rejected by governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, then the approach taken to high-speed rail in America using dedicated rights-of-way will, in my opinion, be slower-going and likely will follow a more incremental path toward achieving that end.

As for the Cincinnati streetcar, mayor-elect John Cranley, as part of his campaign platform, vowed to stop the project which, in my way of thinking, has now opened up a whole can of worms.

“Two days after Cincinnati voters elected anti-streetcar candidate John Cranley mayor, construction continues on the city’s partially-built streetcar system,” wrote Angie Schmitt at DC.Streetsblog.org.

“Cranley called on the City Council to halt construction on the project [Nov 6th]. A majority of the current council favors the streetcar, but that will change in a few weeks, when Cranley and the new council members are sworn in.”

Imagine the implications if money granted by the Federal Transit Administration is returned. If work is stopped, the cost to Cincinnati might be more than if the project were to be completed, according to Schmitt.

Adding to this, Robert Steuteville at Better! Cities & Towns writes: “The streetcar would be good for Cincinnati. Cancelling it will cost the city a pile of money and slow redevelopment of up-and-coming neighborhoods.”

Already spent on the streetcar is $23 million while $94 million more “is tied up in contracts,” Schmitt wrote.

Meanwhile, in many cities, even in bankrupt Detroit, streetcar systems are viewed as catalysts to help breed new life and vitality into long-decaying, decrepit and derelict inner city cores.

Because of their small environmental footprints electric-streetcar systems help improve air quality, too.

– Alan Kandel

This post was last revised on Feb. 27, 2020 @ 7:40 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.