USDOT Rail Grants to Obligate Taxpayers

The US Department of Transportation has announced a competitive grant program to reallocate funding that was refused by Florida for a proposed high speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. The line was cancelled by Governor Rick Scott because of the prospect for billions of dollars of unplanned obligations that could have become the responsibility of the state's taxpayers.

Eligibility: Eligible applicants are states, groups of states, Amtrak or other government agencies that authorized to "provide intercity or high-speed rail service on behalf of states or a group of states. The grant program requires recipients of grants (read "taxpayers") to provide financial support to intercity and high speed rail passenger rail programs in the event that cost and ridership projections are optimistic (a routine occurrence).

Obligation to Pay for Cost Overruns: As in the program announced in 2009. the state, group of states, government agency will be required to demonstrate its financial capacity (that is, the capacity of their taxpayers) to pay for cost overruns (page 9). This open-ended liability led Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to cancel a new transit-Hudson River rail tunnel, which had costs that were escalating out of control that would be the obligation of the state's taxpayers. Governor Christie and Governor Scott were both aware of the disastrous record of major infrastructure cost overruns, such as in the Boston Big Dig project, the Korean high-speed rail program and the overwhelming majority of passenger rail projects in North America and Europe, according to a team led by Oxford University Professor Bent Flyvbjerg.

Obligation to Pay Operating Costs: Moreover, inaccurate passenger and revenue forecasts have been pervasive in high-speed rail systems, as has been documented by Flybjerg, who found that cost overruns occurred in nine out of ten projects:

... we conclude that the traffic estimates used in decision making for rail infrastructure development are highly, systematically and significantly misleading.

This is illustrated by the fact that even a decade and one-half after the Eurostar London to Paris and London service was opened, ridership remains 60 percent below projection. Ridership on the Taiwan and Korea high speed rail systems has been one-half or more below projections. Our analysis of the Tampa to Orlando line revealed exceedingly high ridership projections, which were inexplicably raised even higher in a new report just released. Failure to achieve ridership projections increases the likelihood that a line will need operating subsidies, which would be the ultimate responsibility of taxpayers under the USDOT program.

Federal Grant Repayment Obligation: Moreover, taxpayers of any grant recipient would be required to repay part or all of the federal grant if a sufficient level of service is not maintained for a period of 20 years (page 41). The operation of this provision is illustrated by recent Florida experience. Tri-Rail, the Miami area's commuter rail service only narrowly escaped having to repay $250 million when its service level was deemed to not meet requirements of a federal grant by early in the Obama presidency. Tri-Rail was rescued by a state subsidy of nearly $15 million annually, which restored an artificially high level of service.

Intercity and High Speed Rail Program: The federal intercity and high-speed rail program is largely limited to upgrades of Amtrak-type service. Before Governor Scott's decision, only two of the programs (Florida and California) would have achieved international standard high speed rail speeds.