The nascent nationwide push for high-speed rail still needs a specific funding plan and a mix of federal, local and private sources are now being explored, U.S. Department of Transportation officials said yesterday.

The current legislative penchant for funding small chunks of ongoing transportation projects is inadequate and public-private partnerships will be tapped as one funding option in the National Rail Plan, which is due to Congress by Sept. 15.

“While we don’t have political will to raise the gas tax, we do seem to have political will to take general funds and put it into transportation,” said Polly Trottenberg, assistant secretary for transportation policy.

She cited a report by a blogger that the federal government has added $80 billion to transportation funding through general fund appropriations and the stimulus package the past three years. That approach is not sustainable over the long term, according to Trottenberg.

“Perhaps transportation taken in more bite-size chunks is something there’s political will for,” she said. “Unfortunately, to build a national high-speed rail program, taking things in small chunks may not work that well.”

Speaking at a symposium on building a high-speed rail system at New York University in Manhattan, Trottenberg said the DOT is in the process of putting together a national rail plan that has to find a balance between supporting local initiatives that put up some of their own funds and the more centralized planning approaches used in Europe and China. A fully centralized planning approach is not considered politically feasible here.

Panelists said various high-speed rail proposals across the country could cost between $500 billion to $2 trillion. The Obama administration has awarded $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, and will soon award another $2.5 billion.

Florida was granted $1.25 billion to help build a high-speed rail line spanning 84 miles between between Tampa and Orlando. New York was awarded far less — $151 million.

“We were committed to doing true high-speed rail and there weren’t many places in the country that were actually ready to do that,” Trottenberg said. “Florida and California were the only ones.”

True high-speed rail means speeds over 150 miles per hour on a dedicated track. The federal government couldn’t just do a program in two states so it funded projects in other states that seemed likely candidates for future high-speed rail systems, she said.

One panelist, David Levinson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, questioned whether the various high-speed proposals were a good use of funds.

“That money has real costs because if we spend it on this we can’t spend it somewhere else — there’s a lot of other things we could be looking at,” Levinson said, questioning the economic development claims that surround high-speed rail. He said the claims may be true for rail hubs, but not for outlying “spokes.” 

The environmental benefits in relation to cost have been overstated, he said. “I think we can look at other ways of spending money in order to get the same level of environmental gains,” Levinson said.

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