The first I heard about a major high speed rail bill being worked on by Senator Kerry came from an unusual source: the local Atlanta press. It seemed the unofficial capital of the South, seemingly a world away politically from Boston, was all abuzz about a bill written by the liberal Senator from Massachusetts for which snippets and drafts were being passed around. So what could get the still relatively red state of Georgia all excited? How about connecting Texas to Atlanta, and Atlanta to Boston on high speed rail? Well, it turns out the buzz was a precursor to what I think may be one of the lasting legacies of our former nominee for President and soon to be Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yes, John Kerry can do more than one thing at a time, and this thing is BIG.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Senator Kerry and Senator Specter introduced the High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 on November 20, 2008:
The High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 builds upon the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 which reauthorizes Amtrak and authorizes $1.5 billion over a five-year period to finance the construction and equipment for eleven high-speed rail corridors. It provides billions of dollars in both tax-exempt and tax credit bond and provides assistance for rail projects of various speeds. The bill creates the Office of High-Speed passenger rail to oversee the development of high-speed rail and provides a consistent source of funding.
Specifically, the High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008 provides $8 billion over a six-year period for tax-exempt bonds which finance high-speed rail projects which reach a speed of at least 110 miles per hour It creates a new category of tax-credit bonds – qualified rail bonds. There are two types of qualified rail bonds: super high-speed intercity rail facility bond and rail infrastructure bond. Super high-speed rail intercity facility bonds will encourage the development of true high-speed rail. The legislation provides $10 billion for these bonds over a ten-year period. This would help finance the California proposed corridor and make needed improvements to the Northeast corridor. The legislation provides $5.4 billion over a six-year period for rail infrastructure bonds. The Federal Rail Administration has already designated ten rail corridors that these bonds could help fund, including connecting the cities of the Midwest through Chicago, connecting the cities of the Northwest, connecting the major cities within Texas and Florida, and connecting all the cities up and down the East Coast.
Now you are probably wondering why I mentioned Atlanta in the opening and now the LA Times in the body. That's because that is how far the excitement for this bill is going: coast to coast. Back to the Atlanta angle, it seems there is interest in the Peach State because good transportation is good for business. Yes, conservative Republican Senator Johnny Isakson was intrigued back in September:
Isakson is about to reach across the aisle again, this time to John Kerry, the Democrat from Boston. The purpose: A revival of this country’s rail system, which — with luck — could give birth to a high-speed passenger train that would careen from Birmingham, through Atlanta, to Washington.
For Isakson, energy is again a motivating force. It takes less of the stuff to push a load of people sideways than to raise them to 35,000 feet — and then push them sideways. Also, high-speed trains can be powered by electricity that’s generated by coal, natural gas, or — if one prefers — nuclear energy.
Oil be damned.
This is no small thing, however. We’re talking the largest reshaping of American infrastructure since Dwight Eisenhower ordered up a duplicate of the German autobahn.
Now at this point Isakson has not signed onto the official bill; however, here are the co-sponsors as it stands:
Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Joe Lieberman (I-CT.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), cosponsored the legislation.
And it was not just Isakson excited about the prospect of high speed rail in Atlanta:
Kerry’s office would not offer any details of the bill that the Massachusetts senator intends to drop sometime this month. But at least one draft is already floating around Atlanta business circles.
Isakson said the bill would fundamentally alter our method of capitalizing rail transportation, putting it on a footing similar to the way we fund airports, freeways and seaports. Governments, a combination of state and federal, would acquire the right-of-way and build tracks. User fees would pay for upkeep, levied by private rail corporations that would live or die on their own performance.
Now this bill introduced now will again be introduced in the new Congress. If we can get conservative Republicans to sign onto the concept, then this thing can happen. Not only that, I would propose that this is exactly the kind of infrastructure spending we need to stimulate the economy, and it would be an investment we would enjoy for years and years to come.
I know I will be contacting my Senators come January to support this bill; and this time, I actually think I have a shot in convincing them. I urge all of you to contact your Senators as well about this bill.
Update Courtesy of Living in Gin, we've got video of high speed rail ... by the French. Come on, America. We can do this! We can't be upstaged by the French!
Update 2 High Speed Rail in California via Eugene in the comments
Update 3 If I can toot my own horn, back in 2007 I participated in a conference call with John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry about their book This Moment on Earth which was about Environmental activists. I specifically asked a question about public transportation. Read his answer:
Beachmom: Portland has such a great public transportation system which is attractive and successful, but how can that be duplicated in other cities like, for example, Atlanta, where I used to live, which has a terrible traffic and air pollution problem, but there doesn't seem to be the political will to change that?
John: Well, you're right. I've been down to Atlanta. Atlanta made a special effort, which we write about in the book, during the Olympics, and frankly, became a great case study for what you can do when you make an effort to get people out of their cars and off the roads, and the pollution went way down during that period of time.
I believe the federal government needs to take the lead and provide significant incentives to induce the kinds of behavior that we would like to see as a national goal. Historically, the great efforts of our country were achieved in partnership -- Dwight Eisenhower put huge sums of money behind the interstate highway system, because he saw it as a national security need, and we developed the railroads, we developed electricity in America because we decided it was important for every home to have electricity. So the government put about $5 billion into the infrastructure and guaranteed that every home was going to be reached, and we did, and that's how America developed.
I view this as a similar kind of challenge to the nation. Getting our air cleaner, reducing carbon is essential for the survival of the planet. That's not an exaggerated phrase. It's a real thing, and the science is increasingly alarming, and the scientists themselves are increasingly alarmed, because the things that they've predicted are happening faster, and happening to a greater degree than they even predicted. So when people see that kind of feedback coming from Mother Earth herself, you better stop and take notice. I think that the national leadership has got to put some money on the line as an inducement for people (at the local level) to be able to engage in certain kinds of projects.
For instance in Los Angeles, they are engaged in doing the beginnings of a subway system. That costs a lot of money. We ought to be doing a high speed rail system -- East Coast and West Coast, at least ... They are congested enough and it's critical enough that we should be doing it. Why should Shanghai, China have a Maglev train going from their airport to downtown Shanghai in twelve minutes, and we're struggling in the United States just to hold onto Amtrak, which is a curvial, twisted line that's never going to be modern. This is absurd.
And the absence of leadership in all of this is really damning.
So he has been thinking about this for a long time. Now that Dems have big majorities in the House and Senate, plus the presidency, these dreams may become real.
Update 4 In related news, Sen. Kerry talked to the press about what he will be doing as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. One of his top priorities? Global Climate Change:
Kerry will lead the Senate delegation headed to Poznan, Poland, next month in order to participate in U.N. climate talks that will lay the groundwork for a final international agreement on greenhouse gases in December 2009. He noted that since the Senate must ratify any climate treaty arising from the 2009 negotiations, "We intend to be a full partner with the administration in defining the parameters of a global agreement."
Global warming, he said, is "going to be front and center" on the Foreign Relations Committee's agenda.
"It's going to be one of the top priorities of the committee," Kerry said. "I know this playing field and I know this issue."
As everyone knows, the Kyoto Treaty in fact died in the Senate, who was not part of the negotiations for that treaty. Then there is the fact that Bush soon will no longer be occupying the White House. Elections have consequences:
"It's a moment we've been waiting for, many of us, for some period of time -- for eight years, to be blunt," Kerry said. "And we intend to pick up the baton and really run with it here."
"I have both the chairmanship of the committee as well as a president to work with," he added in a conference call with reporters. "And I'm very excited about where the United States is going to be. I think President-elect Obama, in his remarks to the climate change summit that Governor Schwarzenegger held least week, made it very, very clear that after eight years of obstruction and delay and denial, the United States is going to rejoin the world community in tackling this global challenge."
Obama is not attending the gathering, which starts Monday in Poland, but he has said he expects detailed briefings from Kerry and other members of Congress who do attend.
Kerry also said he expects to work closely on the issue with Vice President-elect Joe Biden and with Senator Hillary Clinton, expected to be named secretary of state.
"She's, you know, committed on this issue," he told reporters. "And I think it's going to be a very powerful team. I mean, I think we're going to get as strong a focus on this issue as we could possibly have hoped for. And that excites me. I mean, I really see the capacity for us to get this done."