(Pic by Daniel)

Speculation has been increasing that support for high-speed rail projects may hinge on who gets elected governor. In Florida, Democrat Alex Sink has long supported them, while Rick Scott has demurred, as Tampa’s 10 News reported last week:

Scott campaign spokesperson Bettina Inclán told us in a statement, “Rick supports transportation infrastructure and modernizing our transportation system. However, he is opposed to investing in projects that have little or no return on investment to the state.””We have seen no reports that suggest the bullet train would be self-sufficient. The state has been subsidizing Tri-Rail [a commuter train in South Florida] since its inception and we can not afford to be subsidizing the bullet train as well.”

While support for rail funding at the state level may depend on the outcome of the November election, a report released last month by the Progressive Policy Institute calls on Congress to draw on the federal Highway Trust Fund to pay for rail projects.

Can the nation afford [high-speed rail] in a time of looming federal deficits?

The answer is yes – financing [high-speed rail] is entirely feasible, but will only happen if the administration and its congressional allies take bold steps to rebalance our transportation priorities. Fortunately, there is both a funding source and a road map for moving from today’s scattershot federal transportation spending to a results-driven enterprise.

The funding source is the Highway Trust Fund, with approximate funds of $52 billion a year. Allocating a portion of highway funds for rail construction is an equitable way to wean drivers away from auto travel by providing them with a faster, safer, and more environmentally sound alternative.

The report calls for $5 billion in federal highway funds to be allocated to rail development in 2011 and for increases through 2015, “with special emphasis on getting a demonstration high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando completed by 2015.”

It also suggests that the bureaucratic wall of separation between federal rail and highway administrators should be dismantled, to promote the development of passenger rail projects along highway corridors. The Tampa-to-Orlando route, aligned with Interstate 4, would provide a working model of this approach.

The idea of diverting highway funds to rail projects had been gaining ground in Washington policy circles, but is suffering a backlash amid calls to modernize the federal highway system and concerns about the solvency of the trust fund.

“Sooner or later Congress is going to have to deal with the major shortfall in highway investment,” the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole said in a press release accompanying a study he authored for the libertarian organization. That study suggested that the way to deal with the shortfall would be to reduce trust-fund spending on “peripheral” concerns not related to highway construction.

A 2008 study (.pdf) by the Government Accountability Office found that in many cases, increased federal investment encouraged state and local governments to reduce their own transportation spending, increasing the strain on the federal highway fund.

The GAO report suggested the federal government should set clear national priorities — possibly including energy independence, “environmental stewardship” and reduced highway congestion (see pages 38 and 39). Those priorities could then define which funding burdens would be carried by the federal government, and which would be borne at the state and local level.

Where the federal interest is greatest, the federal government may play a more direct role in setting priorities and allocating resources, as well as fund a higher share of program costs. Conversely, where the federal interest is less evident, state and local governments could assume more responsibility.

The Progressive Policy Institute report argues that one of those priorities should be reducing “our dangerous overdependence on cars and gasoline.” Around the country, though, Republican gubernatorial candidates aren’t seeing it that way, as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker noted Friday in The Hill.

I am drawing a line in the sand. No matter how much money President Obama and Governor Doyle try to spend before the end of the year in my state, I will put a stop to this boondoggle the day I take office.

Rick Scott’s position is a bit more nuanced, campaign spokesman Trey Stapelton recently told The Florida Times-Union:

In order for the high-speed rail system to make sense as an investment for the state, it must be demonstrated that the increased economic activity generated by the investment, the savings in maintaining roads that would otherwise be traveled, and other ancillary benefits of the system end up generating more revenue for the state than what the state may provide.

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