In addition to these stimulus funds, the Department of Transportation, since mid-March, has issued at least six announcements and notices seeking proposals for high-speed planning and construction projects in the various corridors already designated by the FRA. These projects will be funded from monies left over in the stimulus and PRIIA programs as well as FY 2008, 2009 and 2010 DOT appropriations.
The administration notes that these funds, now totaling more than $13 billion between ARRA and PRIIA, are just the beginning. Indeed, some estimate that the network of high-speed corridors reflected in the map above could cost as much as $1 trillion to complete over the next several decades, particularly if it is pursued in the incremental manner described by the administration.
Not since America launched the Interstate Highway System has the nation undertaken such a massive infrastructure project. Indeed, Congressman James Oberstar (D-MN) intends to seek $50 billion in the next multi-year surface transportation authorization bill as well as a variety of ways to pay for and sustain the initiative.
Among the various strategies under consideration are: establishing a long-term federal funding source like a possible dedication of revenue authorized through a climate or carbon reduction initiative, an expansion of the Build America Bond program, the use of public/private partnerships and possibly creating an infrastructure investment bank facility similar to one widely used to finance infrastructure projects in the European Union.
The development of American high-speed rail has, to this point, been a work in progress dating back at least to the mid-1990s. In 1997 the Department of Transportation produced a significant and rather comprehensive plan, but the winds of change blew and efforts to aggressively pursue the plan were set aside. In the last decade, quiet deliberations at the national level have gone on, but at the state and regional levels, serious discussions have ensued. California, various states in the Midwest, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas have been hotbeds of planning and development, and in the Northeast Corridor Amtrak has been working steadily toward developing plans and executing efforts pointing toward the eventual deployment of truly high-speed rail service equivalent to the service currently experienced in Europe, Asia and other areas of the world.
National Plan Challenges
The next step in this process includes the enunciation of a nation plan. To that end, Congress directed that the FRA present a long-term strategic plan by mid-October. In response, the agency issued a preliminary national plan last October and on April 5, issued a request for comment on a final national plan with instructions that comments intended to affect the plan be received by May 3, and all others by June 4. While this is an objectionable situation, it does highlight the urgency of moving the high-speed rail initiative forward.
Additionally, the six challenges to sustainable high speed rail outlined by FRA Administrator Szabo do require attention.
For example: While Greenfield development would be preferable, is there validity and a rational strategy to, as one local official described it, “go from gravel roads to a six-lane expressways;” i.e. go from virtually no passenger service to truly high-speed rail services?
Should America have national procurement standards for high-speed rolling stock, signals, switches and the other hardware required of high-speed rail systems included in a national high-speed rail plan?
Can we establish national safety standards and operational guidelines appropriate for passenger service operating on tracks shared with other rail services, while pursuing more appropriate standards for high speed passenger rail service operating on grade separated, dedicated and secure railways?
How will state transportation departments that have been thrust into a new role as administrators and managers of passenger rail services achieve success?
Can our nation’s education system and especially universities play a vital role in developing both the intellectual infrastructure of state transportation agencies as well as the capacity of workers in the industry to organize, plan and administer the new American high-speed rail industry?