For the past several months, big numbers have been in the news. Since the bailouts started, we've heard words like "trillion" and phrases like "hundreds of billions" more often than ever before.
Included in the buzz is big money for rail travel, to which there is an upside and, we fear, a downside.
First, the up: Amtrak gets cash. As reported in our news pages awhile back, the administration's economic stimulus package included $1.3 billion in grants for Amtrak. That money is already on the way to being spent for various upgrades and deferred maintenance items.
Also on the upside, the Transportation Department gets to put $8 billion in the pipeline for grants to high-speed rail projects that are in various stages of planning around the country. According to the Obama administration's budget plan for 2010, the $8 billion in stimulus grants is to be followed by a five-year, $5 billion state grant program for high-speed rail.
That's $13 billion over a six-year period, more money than rail people are accustomed to seeing at one time, so the news is good.
The downside, however, is that high-speed rail travel is a big-number enterprise. To put things in perspective, Amtrak will be spending $105 million to replace a single bridge. Some high-speed rail proposals are based on construction costs of $20 million a mile, or more.
The higher the speed, the higher the number.
For a system offering a top speed of 220 mph on the 500-mile route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, planners are estimating construction costs of $33 billion.
There are similar projects under study in several other corridors around the country, including routes within Texas, within Florida and radiating from Chicago to key cities in the Midwest -- and that's just for starters.
So while $13 billion might get a lot of hopes up in the near term, it will only cover a fraction of what the states say they need.
If the government wants to keep this up, it's going to need a continuing funding source that will put money into this pipeline on an ongoing basis, much as the DOT draws on designated funds for highways, transit, airports and air traffic control.
As students of this issue have pointed out countless times, federal outlays for Amtrak and for rail travel infrastructure come from general funds. That means rail projects have to compete with nontransportation projects of all kinds, including national defense, education, health care, missions to Mars and everything else.
That's not the case with airport and highway projects, which rely on revenue streams from dedicated taxes that go into so-called trust funds. Highway projects only have to compete with other highway projects.
Unfortunately, the government hasn't been taking very good care of the Highway Trust Fund. Congress has been spending about $40 billion a year from that fund, and that's more than it's taking in from the gasoline tax.
For many years there has been a chorus of voices in Washington that the federal gas tax is too low and that a higher tax would encourage fuel efficiency, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, contribute to cleaner air and help reduce global warming.
To that chorus we can add this line of harmony: An increase in the tax would contribute to those goals and make additional funds available for high-speed rail.
Sing it out.