Can Western PA Board the Gravy Train?

Florida has declined $2.4 billion in Federal funding for a Tampa-Orlando high speed rail link, noting that it likely cannot pay to operate the system once built. What a contrast in outlook compared with officials here, whose "use it or lose it" attitude kept the boring of the twin tunnels of the North Shore Connector moving forward. Somehow, someway, someone will have a plan to fund operating the system, but that is another story for another day.

The key issue with the Tampa story is that the $2.4 billion now goes up for grabs and Pennsylvania is right in line for a slice of the pie. If we are to believe what local officials said here a few years ago Tampa may never get another shot at Federal money since they turned this opportunity down. What do Pennsylvania officials want to put it towards? Newspaper reports say they have applied for $248 million for additional improvements on the Harrisburg-Philadelphia connection, where the money could increase travel speeds from 110 mph to 125 mph. Note that the corridor received $145 million from 2002-06 and $26 million in 2010.

At some point the incremental improvements-in this case, spending $248 million in order to increase speed 15 mph-just are not enough and the purported benefits of rail travel will have to stand on their own merits.

That’s especially true if the government recognizes the opportunity cost of the rail money and the fact that there is another part of the state to traverse. Federal money has funded half of an upcoming $1.5 million feasibility study to determine what good would come of improving the connection between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The study would presumably confirm what PennDOT stated in an October 2009 funding application that "Increasing service from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is a logical progression to create a successful corridor linking most of Pennsylvania. The improved service corridor would encourage increased rail travel between key cities such as Harrisburg, Altoona and Pittsburgh as well as to other Midwestern destinations in Ohio and beyond".

Given the fiscal reality facing Federal, state, and local budgets, and realizing that taxpayers have already invested in the Harrisburg-Philadelphia connection, and realizing that returning the funds from the de-committed Florida project to taxpayers is a pipe dream, shouldn’t Pennsylvania’s officials hold any successful receipt of dollars in escrow for the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg connection?