Almost three years ago I authored a whitepaper titled “High Speed Rail in the US: From Concept to Reality” which was published in "Railway Track & Structures (RT&S) magazine Oct & Nov 2010. At that time, the rail industry was on fire about the potential and promise of implementing high-speed rail in the United States. It was an exciting time. I thought to myself, “Talk about being in the right place at the right time."
Let’s look back … In 2008 Congress established the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA). In April 2009 the Obama Administration released its Vision for High Speed Rail in America. Shortly after that, the FRA published guidelines for detailed grant application requirements for High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Here in the Northeast, Amtrak released its Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor in September 2010.
Various associations led the charge championing the benefits of high-speed rail. Numerous suppliers and foreign countries were willing to set up shop in the United States providing jobs, technology and institutional knowledge. Hardly a day went by without an article, opinion or blog commentary about high-speed rail whether it was pro or con.
I briefly talked about the commitments made by the Obama Administration, the numerous PRIIA grant applications, and the awards to states eager to make high-speed rail a reality. At that time California and Florida were the leading candidates to be the first to move ahead to build and operate high-speed rail, with the Midwest Chicago Hub corridor gaining steam.
Where Are We Now?
Well due to the financial crisis and shifts in government priorities, high-speed rail has slowed to medium speed. The November 2010 elections changed the momentum drastically. Ohio and Wisconsin said no thanks and returned their funding but the biggest disappointment occurred in February 2011 when Florida halted its high-speed rail program despite 90 percent federal funding and commitments from various consortiums to provide the remaining shortfall. The right-of-way was there, and the industry teams representing hundreds of years of high-speed rail operating experience were primed to be the first to operate and maintain a true high-speed rail system in the United States. Finally, Congress rescinded $400 million of 2010 unallocated funding and eliminated $1 billion in appropriated 2011 high-speed rail funding.
Is High-Speed Rail Still on Track?
Not a day goes by without the pundits and opponents spreading the message that high-speed rail in the United States is dead. However, I believe the vision is moving forward. The USDOT redistributed the $2 billion funding rejected by Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida. Twenty-four states applied for that funding (100 applications requesting $10 billion). Through the doom and gloom, 13 programs in 32 states are still moving forward. Systems are still being planned, environmental work and preliminary engineering is continuing. The FY 2012 budget designated $53 billion over the remainder of the decade to high-speed rail. Incremental high-speed (110 mph) in the Midwest between Chicago and St. Louis became operational in the summer of 2012 and the majority of the corridor in Michigan between Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac is on track to operate at higher speeds by the close of 2014.The message still is clear — the majority of states , especially those in the Northeast, want high-speed rail. Despite leadership changes, never-ending legal battles and other associated bumps and bruises, California is on target for the first truly high-speed operational (220 mph) along the Central Valley Corridor. On August 19th of this year, the CHSRA signed a $985 million contract with the Tutor-Perini Consortium to provide design-build services for the first 30 miles between Madera and Fresno.