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Spending cuts bite into US high speed rail programme

Industry experts this week warned that the future looked bleak for the United States high speed rail programme as Congress revealed it had slashed funding.

Temporary measures

The cuts were revealed in last week’s six-month Continuing Resolution − outlining the government’s latest temporary budget measures.

Debate about the extent of the cuts continues between government departments.

Last week, the Republican-led Committee on Appropriations − which is responsible for writing spending bills − cut nearly $40bn (£24.5bn) from the country’s 2011 fiscal year budget.

High speed rail emerged as one of the biggest casualties.

A committee spokesman told NCE that the total cut in the 2011 high speed rail budget was £1.7bn.

In the 2010 budget, £1.54bn had been allocated to high speed rail. But this money was not used and it was intended that it be carried forward and added to the £1.54bn originally pledged for 2011.

£1.3bn left

Now the entire £1.54bn earmarked for 2011 has been scrapped and £247M has been cut from the money carried forward, leaving just £1.3bn in the 2011 high speed rail budget.

These figures were strongly disputed by a US Department of Transportation (DoT) spokesman who said the cuts were not £1.7bn, but a more manageable £860M.

“This six-month Continuing Resolution contains £0 for high speed rail in 2011 − whereas President Obama’s request was £614M − and rescinds £246M of the funding appropriated for the programme in fiscal year 2010, for a total cut of £860M,” the DoT spokesman said.

“I don’t think anyone knows the answer”

Consultant source

However, the committee spokesman said these additions were flawed. “The total cut to high speed rail compared with last year’s level (fiscal year 2010 enacted level) is £1.7bn,” she said.

“[DoT] appears to be comparing the cut to the President’s request, which was never made law.” A source working for a consultant with ties to the US high speed rail market said the cuts announcements were confusing to those in the industry in the US.

“I don’t think anyone knows the answer,” he said.

£6bn of requests for £1bn of cash

Even more worryingly, DoT said only £1.3bn remains in next year’s budget for high speed rail while a total of 24 states, the District of Columbia and rail operator Amtrak have submitted 98 applications for cash from the £1.3bn pot. Competition for this money will be tough as these requests total more than £6.14bn.

The source said only a handful of projects now looked like they would be viable.

“In the discussions I’ve been having, it seems that [the programme] is likely to still go ahead, with Chicago, the Northeastern Corridor, Texas and California, among others, being the ones that jump out,” he said.

The US Federal Government allocated £4.9bn for high speed rail projects as a part of the 2009 economic stimulus package and in March this year, US transportation secretary Ray LaHood announced that America was ready for high speed rail, saying that 35 states had accepted earlier funding allocations.

The cuts now create a huge dent in Obama’s plan to provide 80% of Americans with access to high speed rail.

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