Government Affairs LaHood tells aviation industry: Don’t fight high-speed rail funds By Michael Fabey / March 15, 2010 Share 1 -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week delivered a stern rebuke to aviation experts and executives who criticized the Obama administration’s interest and investments in high-speed rail."Let me give you a little political advice: Do not be against high-speed rail," LaHood told the audience attending the annual FAA Forecast Conference in Washington. "The administration wants it. Americans want it. It is coming. We are going to be in the high-speed rail business."The U.S. will develop high-speed rail the same way the country developed a national interstate highway network, LaHood said, adding that it’s not necessarily bad news for aviation. "People are still going to fly," he said. "But we need alternatives. People want high-speed rail, so get with the program."LaHood’s comments followed an FAA conference panel about on-time airline operations that featured several aviation experts attacking the Obama administration’s financial commitment — $8 billion, so far — to develop fast passenger train service. "Does it make sense to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to create a new mode of travel that competes with a self-supportive one?" asked Robert Poole, director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at the Reason Foundation, a politically conservative think tank. "Are we on the wrong track? Nowhere in the world does rail recover capital costs."Poole called investment in rail "the gift that keeps on taking."LaHood bristled at the insinuation that the government saw itself as a golden spigot of public funding for high-speed rail."The idea that it will be all subsidized by the government is nonsense," he said. "There’s not enough money in Washington."But that’s partly the point, aviation officials said. There’s precious little public funding available, and what there is should be targeted for important aviation programs like NextGen air traffic control and airport operations."I’m not against high-speed rail," said FAA conference panelist James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association. "I just wish we could get more funding."Speaking during a conference luncheon break shortly after LaHood’s comments, American CEO Gerard Arpey said, "I got the message. I’m all for high-speed rail. But we’ve got to keep today’s system vibrant."For example, he said, it will cost American Airlines "hundreds of millions of dollars" to properly equip its aircraft to meet FAA requirements for using the NextGen air traffic control system, which relies on GPS technology.And the government should pay for that, he said. "That would be my starting position."LaHood said the administration knows the airlines have been suffering a great deal recently. "We have the attention of the White House for the airline industry," LaHood said.But industry officials said the $1.4 billion being requested by the Obama administration for NextGen is on the low side; the total bill for the program is much closer to what the administration wants to spend on high-speed rail.Aviation officials also claimed their industry has borne the costs of the national campaign against terrorism more than other business segments. The added security measures, they said, have added expense to air transportation, making it a more costly and less desirable mode of travel. "Why airlines are singled out to bear the fight against terrorism escapes me," Arpey said. "I would argue that airlines should not pay for national defense."But James Crites, executive vice president of operations for Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, said the industry segments had only themselves to blame for the administration’s relatively lukewarm budget embrace of air traffic control improvements."We have to sell Next Generation," he said during the FAA panel debate. "We have to bring back the value of our product."And high-speed rail, Crites added, could actually boost aviation by improving overall transportation in the U.S."I don’t see it as competition," he said. "I see it as a complementary mode."That was one of the thrusts of a Brookings Institution report, "Expect Delays: An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States," released last October.The report said the U.S. should look at starting rail links between major metro centers that are 200 and 500 miles apart, specifically those now served by congested air hubs."Many of these aviation corridors offer an excellent customer base to quickly create significant ridership and begin making returns on investment as soon as possible," the Brookings report said. "At distances of less than 400 miles, high-speed rail can meet or beat air travel times."After the speech, in which he stated that both the people and the administration want alternatives and admonished the aviation community to climb aboard, LaHood asked, somewhat rhetorically, "Any other questions?"The response was mostly one of nervous laughter.