Monday, April 20, 2009


Last week President Obama and the Federal Railroad Administration unveiled the “Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.” This plan to build 100-600 miles of high-speed lines finally gives hope that our nation may develop a sustainable alternative for intercity travel. The funding for these high-speed rail investments will be the $8 billion in the Recovery Act, and a proposed $1 billion per-year high-speed rail grant program.

However, the Recovery Act money has the stipulation that it can only fund “shovel ready” projects. For rail that means preliminary engineering and environmental work must be completed. That is a pretty big stipulation. Since major federal funding for rail transit was a pipe dream under the Bush administration, few regions had the resources or took the time to carry out engineering and environmental review for these ambitious projects.

This stipulation has created a challenge. In Georgia, for example, despite several rail lines crossing through the state on the Federal Railroad Administration’s proposed route map, there are no projects eligible for construction funding. One Atlanta news source reports, “The only thing the state leaders can do with any money they may get from Washington is to begin to study the possibility of the administration's proposal.”

In Pennsylvania, however, the story is different. The upgrading of the Keystone line, connecting Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, to high-speed rail seems to meet the criteria, and could be the first high-speed rail line to start construction with the Recovery Act funding. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, “Contracts could be awarded by the end of this summer.” That is good news since the trip from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh that takes five hours by car, currently takes a minimum of seven-and-a-half hours on Amtrak.

In the long-term I hope this Vision is only the beginning of a shift in priorities to make rail (rather than highways) become the focus and growth engine for our nation. The Recovery Act is a one-time funding source. However, every six years Congress re-authorizes the federal transportation funding bill, and it is up for re-authorization this year. The real test will be how the re-authorization reflects a change in priorities, putting more emphasis on rail expansion, while reducing funds for new highway construction. We will have to wait and see how this issue evolves.

1 comment:

Troy Madres said...

Was reading a recent article on Spain's high-speed rail network, which has invested over $100 billion on rail since early 90s. We would have to spend over a trillion to get a comparable effect nationwide. I'm not saying that we should make that kind of investment, but the US would need to increase this initial $8bn outlay by another order of magnitude to really make a difference. I am still waiting for my commuter rail from Austin to San Antonio!!