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Monday, February 1, 2010

Last week President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood awarded the $8 billion in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to create 13 new high-speed rail corridor projects in 31 states and the District of Columbia and a number of improvement and planning initiatives to lay the groundwork for future high-speed intercity rail service. The grants, LaHood wrote on his blog Jan. 28, "make rail a viable transportation alternative in many regions."

What do you think? Did the administration spend the $8 billion wisely? And how should it spend future federal dollars to make the most of its investment in high-speed rail?

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18 Responses

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February 25, 2010 12:50 PM


agree
Do you agree?

Ted Crocker, a California engineer and high-speed rail activist from Burlingame, CA, sent in this response:

The short answer is No. At least not in California. The reasons are:

1.Legal

a. As written, Prop 1a and statute AB3034 require the HST in CA operate without any public subsidy. Unless the capital costs are ignored, this is impossible. Even if the capital costs are ignored (false economy), it is unlikely to operate until much further in the future when the population catches up to projected ridership numbers (this is another issue).

b. As written, Prop 1a requires the CHSRA deliver a complete and viable HST be built between SF and LA. The money is not even close to being available. At this point CA has passed an almost $10B bond, plus the stimulus money amounts to a little over $12B on a projected $42B project. If the Obama administration can only commit another $5B over the next five years to HSR nationwide, CA will run out of money and the rail will not be completed.

c. The Business Plan that has been produced ...

Ted Crocker, a California engineer and high-speed rail activist from Burlingame, CA, sent in this response:

The short answer is No. At least not in California. The reasons are:

1.Legal

a. As written, Prop 1a and statute AB3034 require the HST in CA operate without any public subsidy. Unless the capital costs are ignored, this is impossible. Even if the capital costs are ignored (false economy), it is unlikely to operate until much further in the future when the population catches up to projected ridership numbers (this is another issue).

b. As written, Prop 1a requires the CHSRA deliver a complete and viable HST be built between SF and LA. The money is not even close to being available. At this point CA has passed an almost $10B bond, plus the stimulus money amounts to a little over $12B on a projected $42B project. If the Obama administration can only commit another $5B over the next five years to HSR nationwide, CA will run out of money and the rail will not be completed.

c. The Business Plan that has been produced so far is inadequate to attract the private investors as required by Prop 1a. The Business Plan, while meeting the legislative requirements, does not meet the requirements of an investment grade business plan. There is no risk management. There is not even a basic P&L. The ridership survey has been proven to be false. The CHSRA is playing around with numbers to show a profit, and not the realities.

d. It is likely there has been some fraud involved with presenting the Obama administration false numbers and representing the project as “shovel ready” and fully fundable. Only if they ignore all the public outrage could it possibly be shovel ready in some of the sections. For most sections the engineering has not been completed.

2.Practical

a. So few of the details, and therefore so few of the true costs, have been studied to date that the cost of the project is likely to double to $80B or more for CA. Even CHSRA Board Chairman Curt Pringle has publicly stated that “We will learn in every community of this state, there’s going to be more cost of construction.” The $42B in the existing budget allows only for the cheapest design throughout most of the planned route.

b. The CHSRA did a sales job on the CA citizens. It is starting to catch up with them.

c. The timeline is too compressed to meet the ARRA funding requirements and allow adequate time to study all the details.

d. CA has a $21B deficit. The Governor is having to borrow from the general fund money earmarked for one project to help pay the debt on others.

I'm just scratching the surface. This project should have been studied first, presented accurately as having to be subsidized, and then put to a vote. Instead it was a sales job and it is not going to work unless sticking a stake in the ground and hoping the money will follow is a plan. The way the Proposition was written, this will be illegal if HSR in CA is allowed to continue. Someone needs to have a serious conversation with the President.

If HSR is to be built at any cost, as it seems the political will is intent on doing, the only way this can possibly work in California (and nationwide as Obama wants) is if the Federal Government is willing to commit more than their share up front, about $80B (estimates range from $500B-$1Trillion nationwide) and until they can recoup some of the funds after it is fully built with the private money that is suppose to flow at that time (I don’t believe the Private money will flow).

This is what China is doing, although China is just now starting to wonder if they haven’t invested too much in HSR now that they are considering the cost to subsidize, including maintenance costs, such a massive infrastructure. Remember, they have cheap labor and more control over land takes, similar to when the US built the Transcontinental Railway. Even with their advantages, a ticket on one of their routes similar to one proposed in California costs the average Chinese worker two to three day’s salary. This is not unlike it was for the Transcontinental Railway when a ticket cost the average citizen $40-100 in 1882. The Transcontinental rail was bankrupt three years later. When the Transcontinental Railway was built, corruption reached an all time high, and I suspect this may also be the case in China.

I hope the US has evolved. We have to prevent our romantic notions from interfering with good sense. Rail needs replacement about every 25-30 years; about the time the bonds are due to be paid off and thus the cycle continues. The US doesn’t have the kind of commitment nor resources that China does. At least the Interstate highway system was fully funded with the gas tax. The irony there is the highways trained us to love cars and now we’re asking people to switch to trains so the ridership numbers are enough to support it. That’s going to take some time. The US is dependent on cars, and China isn’t. If the recent rumblings are true that Foreign countries such as Japan and China are starting to back off on US investment and our credit rating declines, this will compound our issues with financing HSR. And so it goes...

If we were smart, we would have been gearing up to manufacture rail cars for all these other countries. Instead, we will be paying other countries to build them for us. The money and jobs are flowing in the wrong direction. The timing is not right for the US. And some could argue that for the same cost, we could guaranty oil independence and immediate return on investment by installing solar panels (on about 4 million homes in CA for $80B), and at the same time we should be promoting telecommuting instead of people commuting.

February 4, 2010 8:52 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Parris N. Glendening

President, Smart Growth Leadership Institute, Former Governor of Maryland, and NSI Senior Advisor

As a longtime champion of high-speed rail as a solution to many of our nation’s transportation challenges, I enthusiastically applaud last week’s award of $8 billion in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to create high-speed rail corridor projects across the country and plan future high-speed intercity rail service. The commitment demonstrates a clear understanding by the Obama Administration of the need for a balanced transportation system.

The resources, however, will be spread thinner than many of us would have preferred. While I recognize the political necessity of spreading the new funds to multiple projects in various parts of the country, I would rather see some focused resources that could lead to a quicker and more dramatic transit impact. A great example is the Northeast corridor linking Boston and Richmond, impacting 11 states and 110 million people. A few other corridors offer similar potential.

That being said, the many benefits of this commitment far outweigh the minor criticism. These projects are critical for job creat...

As a longtime champion of high-speed rail as a solution to many of our nation’s transportation challenges, I enthusiastically applaud last week’s award of $8 billion in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to create high-speed rail corridor projects across the country and plan future high-speed intercity rail service. The commitment demonstrates a clear understanding by the Obama Administration of the need for a balanced transportation system.

The resources, however, will be spread thinner than many of us would have preferred. While I recognize the political necessity of spreading the new funds to multiple projects in various parts of the country, I would rather see some focused resources that could lead to a quicker and more dramatic transit impact. A great example is the Northeast corridor linking Boston and Richmond, impacting 11 states and 110 million people. A few other corridors offer similar potential.

That being said, the many benefits of this commitment far outweigh the minor criticism. These projects are critical for job creation, long-term economic competitiveness and reducing our dependence on oil.

A new analysis by Smart Growth America found that in the first 10 months of last year’s economic stimulus package, investments in public transportation created twice as many jobs per dollar as investments in highways — one more reason why we should move quickly on our transit programs.

We’re off to a great start, but have a long way to go.

February 4, 2010 2:51 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Ed Hamberger

President and CEO, Association of American Railroads

What’s great about last week’s announcement is that it shows moving more people and goods by rail is good for our country. The Administration’s announcement also signals recognition of rail’s vital importance to our nation’s economic recovery.

At a time when our country is working toward economic recovery, rail is clearly a good investment. Each $1 billion invested in growing the nation’s rail system creates 20,000 jobs.

The Administration’s grants also offer a unique opportunity to expand intercity passenger rail service in a manner that better meets the needs of both the general public and users of rail services. Freight rail provides the foundation for realizing President Obama’s transportation vision for high-speed rail – which outlines with the exception of some express high-speed rail projects, intercity passenger rail operations will occur over shared track. Of the 13 corridors that were awarded the grants last week, the overwhelming majority of them will involve movement over rights-of-way owned by freigh...

What’s great about last week’s announcement is that it shows moving more people and goods by rail is good for our country. The Administration’s announcement also signals recognition of rail’s vital importance to our nation’s economic recovery.

At a time when our country is working toward economic recovery, rail is clearly a good investment. Each $1 billion invested in growing the nation’s rail system creates 20,000 jobs.

The Administration’s grants also offer a unique opportunity to expand intercity passenger rail service in a manner that better meets the needs of both the general public and users of rail services. Freight rail provides the foundation for realizing President Obama’s transportation vision for high-speed rail – which outlines with the exception of some express high-speed rail projects, intercity passenger rail operations will occur over shared track. Of the 13 corridors that were awarded the grants last week, the overwhelming majority of them will involve movement over rights-of-way owned by freight railroads.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s guidelines for high-speed rail make clear that states applying for grants for intercity and high-speed rail projects are required to have written agreements with the host freight railroads on issues such as safety, infrastructure capacity, compensation and liability. This ultimately will help ensure that higher speed rail does not compromise the vital present and future role of freight rail in America’s economic recovery.

February 4, 2010 12:38 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Ken Orski

Publisher, Innovation Briefs

As Greg Cohen correctly points out, to call the $8 billion rail program "high-speed" is clearly a misnomer. Only one of the 30 projects --the California LA-to-San Francisco corridor --has the potential for true high speed service as that term is used in the rest of the world, i.e. average speeds of 150 mph and higher. The Florida Tampa-to-Orlando project is expected to operate at average speeds of 86 mph, and the Chicago-to-St Louis at 71 mph, according to Rep. John Mica (R-FL). All the remaining projects can best be described as upgrades of existing rail infrastructure that will at best result in moderate increases in average speeds.

Revising the definition of "high-speed rail" downward may be good public relations but it will not change the reality of the modest improvements in service that will be experienced by future rail users.

February 4, 2010 12:20 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Nathaniel P. Ford Sr.

Executive Director and CEO, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), and, Treasurer, National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)

The future of high speed rail is finally upon us, and we hear loud and clear the Obama Administration’s commitment to cities and to safe, clean and convenient transportation options throughout the country. The recently announced selections reflect a variety of projects that will stimulate or support significant employment and improve the viability of environmentally sensitive inter-city rail travel.

California has for many years been planning for the development of a true high speed corridor extending from Los Angeles to San Francisco, traveling at speeds up to 220 mph, which will both alleviate overcrowded airspace and roadways and help to further reduce emissions. In fact, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in San Francisco has been planning for more than a decade to build a multimodal transit center that would serve as the northern terminus for California High Speed Rail.

We are extremely fortunate that the Obama Administration had the foresight to set aside funds for the several proposed corridors throughout the nation as part of the American Recovery and...

The future of high speed rail is finally upon us, and we hear loud and clear the Obama Administration’s commitment to cities and to safe, clean and convenient transportation options throughout the country. The recently announced selections reflect a variety of projects that will stimulate or support significant employment and improve the viability of environmentally sensitive inter-city rail travel.

California has for many years been planning for the development of a true high speed corridor extending from Los Angeles to San Francisco, traveling at speeds up to 220 mph, which will both alleviate overcrowded airspace and roadways and help to further reduce emissions. In fact, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority in San Francisco has been planning for more than a decade to build a multimodal transit center that would serve as the northern terminus for California High Speed Rail.

We are extremely fortunate that the Obama Administration had the foresight to set aside funds for the several proposed corridors throughout the nation as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). We are even more fortunate that they have had the vision to invest in a project that is not only substantially underway, but also has the financial commitment of the people of California to match those funds. While this investment may not be sufficient to complete these projects in their entirety, it is a noteworthy vote of confidence in the future of high speed rail travel and one that certainly supports the stated objective to create or sustain jobs. Their intention to simultaneously bolster job creation and jumpstart a nascent high speed rail industry in the United States in a time of considerable economic uncertainty is both a sound investment decision and one that will create and sustain thousands of jobs that will endure for decades for each of these projects.

These investments are also a clear vote of confidence for our cities as vibrant centers of commerce and travel throughout the country. As the Chair of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority and ED/CEO of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, I can say definitively that bringing these types of high capacity transit modes into the heart of our cities will have a transformative effect. The new state of the art Transbay Tower – which also received $400 million in the latest announcement to construct the train box for California High Speed Rail – is projected to serve more than 45 million people per year and make public transportation a convenient and accessible option for everyone who lives, works and visits the San Francisco Bay Area. Serving intra- and inter-city bus, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), an electrified Caltrain commuter rail and High Speed Rail will enable development of a truly transit oriented neighborhood unlike that in any other city.

While clearly only one piece of a multi-part strategy to reinvigorate the US economy, these high speed rail funding selections will directly stimulate employment for more than the sake of employment. It will serve as an important down payment on a number of significant national priorities that have long been neglected, both serving as a direct economic stimulus and reinforcing our commitment to our transportation infrastructure, investments that are long overdue.

February 4, 2010 11:15 AM


agree
Do you agree?

By Gabriel Roth

Research Fellow, The Independent Institute

I’ve still not seen any economic or financial analysis justifying expenditures on high-speed rail, but John Horsley helped by writing that

  • “As AASHTO and its member states work for passage of a multi-year authorization bill, we will also push for a dedicated source of funding that will help to build the nation’s high speed and intercity passenger rail system.”

This suggests that AASHTO analysts have concluded that user fares will be insufficient to fund passenger rail systems, because the revenues will not cover the expenditures.

The required subsidies are likely to make the nation poorer, the surest way for the administration to achieve its transportation objective of reducing vehicle-miles travelled in the USA.

Actually, as John well knows, there is already a dedicated source of funding for high-speed rail. It is called the federal Highway Trust Fund.

February 3, 2010 6:08 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By John Horsley

Executive Director, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

37 States and the District of Columbia answered a call from the Federal Railroad Administration, applying for high speed and intercity passenger rail grants. The state transportation departments requested approximately $57 billion, demonstrating the level of interest in improving passenger rail infrastructure across the country.

The January 28, announcement of 13 new high-speed rail corridor projects in 31 states and the District of Columbia represents a careful balance on the part of the Administration to invest in both high speed rail projects and other enhancements that will significantly improve service on Intercity Passenger Rail Corridors across the US. The projects deemed most ready to proceed received the principal awards.

In Florida, $1.2 billion will be invested in a new Tampa to Orlando high speed rail line which will cut trip times between the two cities to less than one hour, compared to around 90 minutes by car. By 2014, trains are expected to reach speeds of 168mph, on 84 miles of dedicated track....

37 States and the District of Columbia answered a call from the Federal Railroad Administration, applying for high speed and intercity passenger rail grants. The state transportation departments requested approximately $57 billion, demonstrating the level of interest in improving passenger rail infrastructure across the country.

The January 28, announcement of 13 new high-speed rail corridor projects in 31 states and the District of Columbia represents a careful balance on the part of the Administration to invest in both high speed rail projects and other enhancements that will significantly improve service on Intercity Passenger Rail Corridors across the US. The projects deemed most ready to proceed received the principal awards.

In Florida, $1.2 billion will be invested in a new Tampa to Orlando high speed rail line which will cut trip times between the two cities to less than one hour, compared to around 90 minutes by car. By 2014, trains are expected to reach speeds of 168mph, on 84 miles of dedicated track.

$2.3 billion in recovery grants will be shared between four California rail corridors. New rail construction and system upgrades will dramatically improve trip times and eventually lead to train speeds of 220mph on the segment connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.

This $8 billion investment advances the nation towards the two principal objectives of President Obama’s vision—21st century high-speed passenger rail service where it is most needed, and improved higher speed passenger rail service to lessen greenhouse gas emissions, highway and airport congestion and to improve productivity and our quality of life.

Congress appropriated $2.5 billion in FY 2010 and President Obama in his FY 2011 budget has proposed an additional $1 billion in funding. This investment and additional investments should be used to assist states with the further development of high speed and intercity passenger rail programs. The FRA, Amtrak and states will also need the resources necessary continue its work in developing the Next Generation of rail cars and equipment that can lead to the creation of a new domestic manufacturing industry and thousands of jobs.

As AASHTO and its member states work for passage of a multi-year authorization bill, we will also push for a dedicated source of funding that will help to build the nation’s high speed and intercity passenger rail system. This will give states a sense of certainty so that they can incorporate these vital networks into their long-term plans and add momentum to this first, giant step forward.

February 2, 2010 4:18 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Greg Cohen

President and CEO, American Highway Users Alliance

Bob Poole, Gabriel Roth, and Phineas Baxandall all raise great comments and questions that the Administration should respond to before any money is actually outlayed for the selected projects.

It is disappointing that DOT does not appear to have done a thorough evaluation of the total cost of completion and operations, the estimated number of people to be served by these trains, the % modal share that rail is envisioned to attract in the corridors, costs per passenger mile, an unbiased look at alternatives to rail, and estimated total benefits and costs to taxpayers over time.

In this new era where we face a freeze on discretionary spending, do these corridors truly qualify as the highest and best use of scarce resources? If the answer is yes, then the Administration needs to do a better job of explaining why and responding to constructive criticism and questions.

We also need to stop calling this program "High-Speed Rail" if most of the corridors aren't high speed.

February 2, 2010 4:15 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Robert L. Darbelnet

President and CEO, AAA

AAA supports a transportation system that provides modal choices and multi-modal opportunities that seamlessly link air, land and sea transportation routes. It is important that this system be affordable and accessible for all users in order to properly facilitate personal travel, commuting and freight demands in a balanced manner.

While high-speed rail (HSR) may be a component of these multi-modal options in certain communities/regions, the reality is the funding provided in the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” (ARRA) is a drop-in-the-bucket in terms of the funding necessary to complete a modern HSR network. Vice President Biden expressed this view at a town hall meeting in Tampa last week. Biden said, "We're providing $8 billion in seed money. And today's awards provide only initial funding for the rail system ... It's a down payment." In short, the $8 billion is only money well spent if the rest of the required funding materializes.

Going forward, HSR funding will likely come from a mixture of public/private, federal, state and loca...

AAA supports a transportation system that provides modal choices and multi-modal opportunities that seamlessly link air, land and sea transportation routes. It is important that this system be affordable and accessible for all users in order to properly facilitate personal travel, commuting and freight demands in a balanced manner.

While high-speed rail (HSR) may be a component of these multi-modal options in certain communities/regions, the reality is the funding provided in the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” (ARRA) is a drop-in-the-bucket in terms of the funding necessary to complete a modern HSR network. Vice President Biden expressed this view at a town hall meeting in Tampa last week. Biden said, "We're providing $8 billion in seed money. And today's awards provide only initial funding for the rail system ... It's a down payment." In short, the $8 billion is only money well spent if the rest of the required funding materializes.

Going forward, HSR funding will likely come from a mixture of public/private, federal, state and local sources. As we are faced with an already-overstressed Highway Trust Fund (HTF), AAA would have strong concerns regarding any HSR funding from that source. We are already short-changing the backbone of the nation’s infrastructure system - roads and bridges. We can’t continue to ignore the fundamentals.

If HSR becomes a permanent fixture in our national transportation goals, it should be institutionalized at the federal level. The President’s call for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank could be the vehicle for financing these HSR projects. We hope that the pending surface transportation authorization will more clearly articulate the future size, scope, benefits and non-HTF funding sources of a high-speed rail investment strategy.

February 2, 2010 3:57 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Rich Sarles

Interim General Manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

With the announcement of the first recipients of HSR funding, the federal government has put a down payment on improving and expanding intercity passenger rail service including the introduction of high speed rail service in regions outside the Northeast Corridor. It is now up to the states to use that down payment wisely to not only build the improvements but to adopt policies which encourage the use of rail including targeted economic development, land use supportive of multimodal terminals and connections, funding mechanisms to support implementation as well as operation, and cost effective mode choice decisions. Just as the interstate highway system took decades to implement so will true high speed rail and this is a start.

Clearly the years of planning and advocacy have paid off as new routes are receiving initial major funding but just as importantly existing rail lines are being improved including the northeast corridor to a modest extent. If these investments are to be a success they have to be attractive to the customer not only...

With the announcement of the first recipients of HSR funding, the federal government has put a down payment on improving and expanding intercity passenger rail service including the introduction of high speed rail service in regions outside the Northeast Corridor. It is now up to the states to use that down payment wisely to not only build the improvements but to adopt policies which encourage the use of rail including targeted economic development, land use supportive of multimodal terminals and connections, funding mechanisms to support implementation as well as operation, and cost effective mode choice decisions. Just as the interstate highway system took decades to implement so will true high speed rail and this is a start.

Clearly the years of planning and advocacy have paid off as new routes are receiving initial major funding but just as importantly existing rail lines are being improved including the northeast corridor to a modest extent. If these investments are to be a success they have to be attractive to the customer not only in trip time savings but also by providing a better overall customer experience as was demonstrated by the Acela train service in the northeast where the operating costs are fully covered by passenger revenue. From my experience these initiatives are more than launching engineering projects, rather they are the start up of new businesses whose success will determine the future of high speed service in the US.

February 2, 2010 1:51 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By William Millar

President, American Public Transportation Association

Last week, the Obama Administration put into motion a brand new era for our transportation system in America. This historic step begins the journey toward implementing high-speed rail and emerging high-speed rail and creating a world-class, balanced, multi-modal transportation system. By identifying thirteen corridors across 31 states for high-speed rail funding, the Administration outlined a vision that is national in scope and can transform the way Americans live and move.

The U.S. DOT selected projects that connect vibrant cities; are geographically balanced; and are ready to break ground. Not only will high-speed rail provide faster and quicker travel, but it will create American jobs now while building a new industry with hundreds of thousands of long-term, sustainable, clean-energy jobs, while generating still more jobs through economic development surrounding the stations.

The Administration did a great job in identifying ready-to-go projects, as well as...

Last week, the Obama Administration put into motion a brand new era for our transportation system in America. This historic step begins the journey toward implementing high-speed rail and emerging high-speed rail and creating a world-class, balanced, multi-modal transportation system. By identifying thirteen corridors across 31 states for high-speed rail funding, the Administration outlined a vision that is national in scope and can transform the way Americans live and move.

The U.S. DOT selected projects that connect vibrant cities; are geographically balanced; and are ready to break ground. Not only will high-speed rail provide faster and quicker travel, but it will create American jobs now while building a new industry with hundreds of thousands of long-term, sustainable, clean-energy jobs, while generating still more jobs through economic development surrounding the stations.

The Administration did a great job in identifying ready-to-go projects, as well as projects that will lay the foundation for a high-speed rail network in the future. The U.S. DOT still has $2.5 billion to award to projects that demonstrate the most progress and need additional funding. This means we will see additional development as the vision for high-speed rail in America finally moves to reality.

The Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress have laid the groundwork for a new transportation system to be constructed, one that will allow for an ongoing pipeline for future high-speed rail projects and will spur this great nation to compete globally and to better meet our vital transportation needs. Other countries understand the importance of high-speed rail and now we are on our way to join an international community that values and benefits from high-speed rail.

Finally, it should be noted that the $8 billion in high-speed rail grants is a down payment and more federal funding is needed. However, federal investment should be seen as catalyst since long-term success will include a combination of federal, state, local and private investment. With high-speed projects in motion nationwide, there is no doubt that Americans will support and commit to the building of a high-speed rail network.

February 2, 2010 12:27 PM


agree
Do you agree?

By Ken Orski

Publisher, Innovation Briefs

While high-speed rail advocates have been disappointed by the Administration’s selections because few of the projects offer the promise of true high-speed service — even the Florida project is not expected to attain European-like high speeds according to Rep. John Mica (R-FL)— the Administration’s decision to fund upgrades of rail infrastructure in as many as 13 different rail corridors make good sense--- and not just politically but also policywise.

True "high speed" service (as that term is used in Europe and the Far East, i.e. top speeds of 150 mph and higher) would require separating freight and passenger traffic and that means building entirely new rail infrastructure in dedicated rights-of-way— something that is clearly not within the scope of a $8 billion program. The final price tag for California’s complete high-speed rail system could reach $60 to $80 billion and a recent Government Accountability Office report cites a range of construction costs for high-speed rail from $22 million/mile to $132 million/mile. Setting o...

While high-speed rail advocates have been disappointed by the Administration’s selections because few of the projects offer the promise of true high-speed service — even the Florida project is not expected to attain European-like high speeds according to Rep. John Mica (R-FL)— the Administration’s decision to fund upgrades of rail infrastructure in as many as 13 different rail corridors make good sense--- and not just politically but also policywise.

True "high speed" service (as that term is used in Europe and the Far East, i.e. top speeds of 150 mph and higher) would require separating freight and passenger traffic and that means building entirely new rail infrastructure in dedicated rights-of-way— something that is clearly not within the scope of a $8 billion program. The final price tag for California’s complete high-speed rail system could reach $60 to $80 billion and a recent Government Accountability Office report cites a range of construction costs for high-speed rail from $22 million/mile to $132 million/mile. Setting one’s sights on dedicated high-speed lines makes the $8 billion look like a drop in the bucket.

In the meantime, with railroads expected to assume an ever growing share of intercity freight transport, upgrading infrastructure in existing rail corridors has become an urgent necessity. Since nearly all of Amtrak’s passenger trains run on rail lines owned by freight railroads, such improvements will also benefit passenger traffic. In most corridors, track and signaling upgrades on existing shared passenger/freight lines would permit raising speeds to 90-100 mph from today’s 60-80 mph, according to railroad experts.

To be sure, a strong case can be made that true high-speed rail service will eventually be necessary between major city-pairs separated by less than 300 miles to relieve unacceptable levels of highway and air traffic congestion. But building a national network of dedicated high-speed rail lines from scratch will require decades of a sustained national commitment, spanning many administrations. There is no assurance that future presidents and future Congresses will share President Obama’s and Secretary LaHood’s enthusiasm for high-speed rail. Hence, whether the $8 billion is a first modest down payment on a multi-generational commitment to create a national high-speed rail system, or whether it is simply a commendable one-time policy initiative that will substantially benefit freight railroads but probably only marginally improve passenger rail service, only the future will tell.

February 1, 2010 11:24 PM


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By Petra Todorovich

Director, America 2050, Regional Plan Association

The Administration’s selection of high-speed rail corridors this week represents a critical step toward building the 21st century infrastructure plan our nation needs to accommodate the growth of 130 million people that will be added to this country by 2050 and a 2½ fold growth of our GDP in that time. Investments in intercity passenger rail – integrated with local and regional transit networks – will provide the armature for the growth of productive, accessible, metropolitan regions and megaregions – something that our largest competitor, China, has already realized. Rail is the best mobility option for serving large concentrations of employment and population in metropolitan regions. These types of concentrations are not just found in Europe and Asia; America’s megaregions have density levels comparable to those countries and can be similarly w...

The Administration’s selection of high-speed rail corridors this week represents a critical step toward building the 21st century infrastructure plan our nation needs to accommodate the growth of 130 million people that will be added to this country by 2050 and a 2½ fold growth of our GDP in that time. Investments in intercity passenger rail – integrated with local and regional transit networks – will provide the armature for the growth of productive, accessible, metropolitan regions and megaregions – something that our largest competitor, China, has already realized. Rail is the best mobility option for serving large concentrations of employment and population in metropolitan regions. These types of concentrations are not just found in Europe and Asia; America’s megaregions have density levels comparable to those countries and can be similarly well served by intercity rail. States containing these megaregions like California and Florida have realized that high-speed rail is a better option than building more highway lane miles and airport runways, and provides economic development benefits and real estate opportunities that the other options do not.

The Obama Administration’s announcement of high-speed rail grants this week appeared to weigh the following criteria: project merit, project readiness, and politics. This approach is best demonstrated in their selection of Florida as one of the top grant recipients, receiving $1.2 billion in initial funding. Why was Florida selected? Because compared to other projects, it can be built relatively quickly and cheaply on a public, dedicated, right-of-way and flat topography. It’s a project that gets you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of early results and helps build the critical public support that will be needed to carry out a long term federal commitment to a national high-speed rail program.

If the Administration had selected corridors based on projected ridership demand alone, the Northeast Corridor would be the winner. But the Northeast already has decent intercity rail service, and concentrating grants here would do little to advance and build support for a national program. America 2050’s report, Where High-Speed Works Best, released in September, rated corridors in the Northeast, California, and the Midwest as those with the greatest potential ridership demand for high-speed service based on the following criteria: metropolitan population size, regional GDP, existing transit connectivity, auto congestion, length of corridor, and whether the corridor is located in a megaregion. An update to this study, now underway, takes into account aviation data, tourism, projected population growth, and existing density of employment and population around proposed stations. These results will be made available this spring and will help inform the Administration and the public on future funding decisions.

The Administration made grants in these three high ridership-demand regions (in the Northeast, more than half were to Amtrak for state of good repair.) But they also considered issues like engineering, topography, land acquisition, time to implement, and cost—make or break factors in carrying the projects out. Given the $8 billion appropriation was made as part of the stimulus bill, the imperative was to focus funding where projects can be built sooner rather than later.

Before the passage of PRIIA in Oct. 2008 or the stimulus bill in 2009 our country had no federal rail planning capacity or commitment to passenger rail funding. Thus, with the exception of California and the resurrected plan in Florida, there were few existing high-speed rail plans at the time the stimulus bill was passed. Most state applications for this round of funding focused on upgrading existing corridors to reduce conflicts between freight and passenger trains to make passenger service more frequent, reliable, and to reduce trip times.

Grants made outside of California and Florida will go to these incremental improvements in places like the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, North Carolina, Virginia, Upstate New York, and New England. Are they worth it? I think so. If we can bring more corridors to the level of reliability and service enjoyed in the Northeast Corridor (Regional), we can tap into some of the unmet demand for rail passenger service and build support for a federal commitment to a national high-speed rail program. Such a program is essential to laying the framework for mobility and growth in the nation’s most populous megaregions for decades to come.

February 1, 2010 5:02 PM


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By Bob Poole

Director of Transportation Studies, Reason Foundation

A Solution in Search of a Problem

As someone who loves riding trains, it pains me to say that the Administration’s high speed rail initiative is misconceived. It appears to be a solution in search of a problem or problems to be solved. Let’s examine the usual rationales.

To reduce greenhouse gases? Recent analysis by researchers at UC Berkeley found that HSR may yield only marginal net GHG reductions, once the impacts of constructing it are included, especially if ridership falls short of official projections. And the cost of those reductions is very high—in the vicinity of $2000/ton, compared with low-hanging-fruit transportation reductions that cost more like $50/ton.

To reduce petroleum dependence? That’s not very plausible, when all but two of the funded projects are diesel-powered. And a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that non-subsidized inter-city bus service is much less energy-intensive (BTUs per passenger mile) than highly subsidized inter-city rail.

To provide Americans with a new transpo...

A Solution in Search of a Problem

As someone who loves riding trains, it pains me to say that the Administration’s high speed rail initiative is misconceived. It appears to be a solution in search of a problem or problems to be solved. Let’s examine the usual rationales.

To reduce greenhouse gases? Recent analysis by researchers at UC Berkeley found that HSR may yield only marginal net GHG reductions, once the impacts of constructing it are included, especially if ridership falls short of official projections. And the cost of those reductions is very high—in the vicinity of $2000/ton, compared with low-hanging-fruit transportation reductions that cost more like $50/ton.

To reduce petroleum dependence? That’s not very plausible, when all but two of the funded projects are diesel-powered. And a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that non-subsidized inter-city bus service is much less energy-intensive (BTUs per passenger mile) than highly subsidized inter-city rail.

To provide Americans with a new transportation choice? As a railfan, I’d like that—but I don’t think my fellow taxpayers should be forced to pay for this new choice. At least not when intercity highway and intercity air travel are self-supporting from user taxes.

To provide congestion relief? Most traffic congestion is urban, not inter-city. And to the extent that high-speed rail serves commuters, it becomes slower-speed rail.

To keep up with Europe & Japan? This kind of rationale ignores major differences between the United States and the counties where HSR plays a significant role. In Europe and Japan, cities are far more centralized, so trips from city-center to city-center (where rail goes) serve a much higher fraction of trips than they would in this country (apart from the Northeast Corridor). And the cost of alternatives is much higher in these countries. Driving costs far more due to both high toll rates and much higher fuel taxes; for example, Paris to Marseilles involves $75 in one-way tolls plus $6/gallon gas. Air fares are higher, too, especially in Japan. And inter-city bus is not available at all in France.

With less likelihood of attracting high ridership than in Europe or Japan, we can be sure that none of these U.S. projects, if built, will recover their capital costs, so they will not attract private investment the way toll roads, airports, or seaports can. (Only two overseas HSR lines—Paris to Lyon and Tokyo to Osaka—have recovered their capital costs.) That means hard-pressed states will have to come up with the portion of capital costs not funded by federal taxpayers. Likewise, lower ridership than overseas makes it doubtful these lines will break even on operating costs, thereby requiring ongoing operating subsidies—from some unknown source of funding.

As I told a reporter the other day, given these dismal economics, my advice to states is to look before they leap. HSR grants may be the gift that keeps on taking.

February 1, 2010 2:12 PM


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By Jack Kinstlinger

Chairman Emeritus, KCI Technologies,Inc.

I applaud the President for focussing on the need for the US to get into the high speed rail competition where Europeans, Japanese and Chinese have so far far outstripped us.High speed raill is sorely neded in the US to increase mobility, contribute to energy independence and reduce global warming. I 'm discouraged that over half the $8B was awarded to "incremental projects" where for example curent speed of 90 MPH will at considerable cost be increased to 110MPH. That will hardly contribute to national goals or change travel behavior.Better to invest in "transformational projects" reacvhing at least 150MPH as overseas systems are doing. That will excite the American public and change the way we travel. High speed rail, whether steel wheel or Maglev if properly located and operated should generate significant ridership and revenues, sufficient to cover operating costs and a part of capital. If private airlins can do it so can high speed rail serviing the same high density intercity corridors.I especially advocate maglev that can attain record speeds and operate at about one half the cost of conventional steel wheel.

I

February 1, 2010 12:19 PM


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By Gabriel Roth

Research Fellow, The Independent Institute

In the light of:

(a) President Obama’s early announcement that Peter Orszag, his new budget director, would conduct a thorough review of federal spending programs, "eliminating those programs we don't need and insisting that those we do need operate in a cost-effective way", and

(b) Phineas Baxandall’s interesting recommendations that “any private deals should be undertaken only with full transparency and accountability”, to “Maximize “bang for the buck””.

Would it be in order for a transport economist to ask, before commenting on the proposed investments in “High-Speed Rail”, for a summary listing of their costs and benefits?

Phineas’s recommendations also require the identification of those who benefit and those who pay, and estimates of the costs and benefits of alternative investments in the same corridors, for example, investments in toll roads, possibly including dedicated truck lanes and bus lanes.

February 1, 2010 7:34 AM


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By Peter Gertler

Director, High Speed Rail Services, HNTB Corporation

America has taken a first step toward transforming its transportation system. Clearly, $8 billion isn't sufficient to fund every worthwhile high-speed rail project that was submitted, but in effect we're making a down payment on a world-class, multi-corridor HSR program. The Administration made good on its word by awarding grants based on merit. Clearly, the corridors that received significant funding (Calif., Fla., Ill., Wis., N.C.) represent programs that can deliver on their promises. While the Northeast received less than $500 million, it is important to remember that Amtrak received $1.3 billion in 2009 and there has been significant investment in the Northeast Corridor over the years, therefore the total investment in the northeast is substantial.

For the states that received significant funding, it's full speed ahead. For the many applicants that weren't appreciably impacted by this round of funding, it's important to remember this isn't the end of the line. The U.S. DOT's long-term vision for high-speed passenger rail goes well-beyond what was announced on Jan. 28. B...

America has taken a first step toward transforming its transportation system. Clearly, $8 billion isn't sufficient to fund every worthwhile high-speed rail project that was submitted, but in effect we're making a down payment on a world-class, multi-corridor HSR program. The Administration made good on its word by awarding grants based on merit. Clearly, the corridors that received significant funding (Calif., Fla., Ill., Wis., N.C.) represent programs that can deliver on their promises. While the Northeast received less than $500 million, it is important to remember that Amtrak received $1.3 billion in 2009 and there has been significant investment in the Northeast Corridor over the years, therefore the total investment in the northeast is substantial.

For the states that received significant funding, it's full speed ahead. For the many applicants that weren't appreciably impacted by this round of funding, it's important to remember this isn't the end of the line. The U.S. DOT's long-term vision for high-speed passenger rail goes well-beyond what was announced on Jan. 28. But available dollars today won't stretch everywhere at once.

Fortunately, the President's funding announcement changed the game in terms of how "real" the public and transportation experts consider HSR in this country. Enthusiasm is high. Now is the time to move forward with plans that are in place, and also use the momentum gained to make necessary updates for pursuing future rounds of federal funding.

To maintain this forward motion, Congress should consider a dedicated funding program for HSR as part of a new surface transportation bill that thoroughly examines and considers all opportunities, including an entitlement or perhaps a trust fund. Whatever the source, it should be sustainable and long term. The nation cannot afford a short term response to a long term need. In terms of magnitude, it must have a significant impact. Rep. Oberstar's $50 billion draft bill is a good start. Achieving a long term, well-funded plan will require a political consensus that HSR is an investment our nation can't afford to short-change. The FRA's national rail plan will provide a blueprint for HSR ambitions and require a commensurate funding stream.

With this continued commitment, we can secure the long-term health of our transportation system, improving America's economy as well as its mobility. http://www.hntb.com/point-of-view/ready-for-high-speed-rail

February 1, 2010 7:33 AM


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By Phineas Baxandall

Senior Analyst, United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG)

Last week’s federal grants for high-speed rail were successful at both supporting a few national “impact” projects and seizing opportunities for smaller projects that are expected to yield a big bang for their buck. I offer a few observations about these ARRA grants, and also recommendations for future investment from a U.S. PIRG research report that will be released next Tuesday.

The states receiving the largest high speed rail grants also recently made their own new funding commitments to public transit, or approved new funding methods to do so. This holds for Wisconsin, California, Florida, metro Chicago and even Maine. It makes sense for federal funds to respond this way to states’ own investments in transit feeder networks since these will help ensure growing ridership and better connectivity.

The $8 billion in one-time stimulus money will not fund any state’s full potential for high-speed rail, nor even states’ full line of “ready to go” rail projects. Many deserving projects could not be part of the application process because funding had never ...

Last week’s federal grants for high-speed rail were successful at both supporting a few national “impact” projects and seizing opportunities for smaller projects that are expected to yield a big bang for their buck. I offer a few observations about these ARRA grants, and also recommendations for future investment from a U.S. PIRG research report that will be released next Tuesday.

The states receiving the largest high speed rail grants also recently made their own new funding commitments to public transit, or approved new funding methods to do so. This holds for Wisconsin, California, Florida, metro Chicago and even Maine. It makes sense for federal funds to respond this way to states’ own investments in transit feeder networks since these will help ensure growing ridership and better connectivity.

The $8 billion in one-time stimulus money will not fund any state’s full potential for high-speed rail, nor even states’ full line of “ready to go” rail projects. Many deserving projects could not be part of the application process because funding had never been approved to conduct planning studies or purchase rights of way. For the $50 billion in projects which made it through the initial pre-approval vetting process, the grant awards will provide funds for only 16 percent of that total.

Creating a high speed rail system for America will be a long haul. It took over three decades to complete the Interstate Highway System. A similar kind of sustained commitment is needed.

In doing so, here are 11 recommendations for guiding investment in future high speed rail:

1. Invest the necessary resources – America must reverse the half-century-long trend of underinvestment in passenger rail by creating a reliable funding source and channeling the necessary resources.

2. Maximize “bang for the buck” by investing in lines with the greatest ridership potential and using incremental, short-term improvements in passenger rail to help lay the groundwork for eventual faster high-speed service.

3. Balance private investment with public safeguards – Harnessing private investment can help to deliver high-speed rail improvements, but the public must retain control over key infrastructure and decision-making, and any private deals should be undertaken only with full transparency and accountability. Wherever possible, new rail lines should be built on publicly owned right of way. Public investments in privately owned tracks should be tied to agreements to secure greater priority for passenger trains.

4. Invest to achieve full benefits by refusing to cut corners in new rail investments, particularly with regard to investments that can improve energy security, environmental performance, and safety.

5. Build stations in the right places, where passengers have access to a variety of transportation options for completing their trip and where passenger rail can provide a catalyst for transit-oriented development.

6. Assure transparency in all aspects of the decision-making process over passenger rail, including the expenditure of funds and contracting.

7. Manage for performance by collecting and publicizing data on ridership, energy consumption, safety and other aspects of rail service, and setting concrete goals for achieving specific targets in each of these areas.

8. Encourage domestic manufacturing to supply the equipment needed for the build-out of the nation’s passenger rail system and make America a leader in an emerging global technology.

9. Set standards for high-speed rail equipment so that the nation can benefit from economies of scale.

10. Encourage cooperation among states, and between states and the federal government, in the development of high-speed rail.

11. Measure progress against a clear goal. The nation should set an ambitious goal for the development of the nation’s rail system. We call for linking all major cities within 100 to 500 miles of one another with true high-speed rail by mid-century.

While the programmatic details are worked out, Congress must act to make sure that high speed rail isn’t left at the station. Any new jobs bill must provide additional funds for intercity passenger rail. The next federal budget should likewise provide at least the $4 billion in annual support that the House voted for last year. Most importantly, the upcoming Transportation Reauthorization Act should establish a dependable funding system for a rapidly growing passenger rail system.

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