Thursday, November 12, 2009

From the Editor: FRA caught between merit and politics?

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgThe Federal Railroad Administration is now evaluating a tall stack of applications for high speed passenger rail projects—roughly $100 billion worth for an $8 billion ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) grant program. Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, based on his staff’s recommendations, will be the one to sign off on which projects are funded, and for how much. Given that demand far exceeds supply, he’s going to have to make some tough choices.

The selection process, says FRA, is “merit-based,” an approach Administrator Szabo reiterated during his luncheon address at Railway Age’s “Passenger Trains on Freight Railroads” conference last month. It’s in official documents, as well. From the Federal Register: “The evaluation and selection criteria are intended to prioritize projects that deliver transportation, economic recovery, and other public benefits, including energy independence, environmental quality, and livable communities; ensure project success through effective project management, financial planning, and stakeholder commitments; and emphasize a balanced approach to project types, locations, innovation, and timing.”

The selection process, as published in the FRA’s High Speed Rail Strategic Plan and in the Federal Register, spells out the requirements. A given project either meets the criteria, or it doesn’t. So it follows that the selection process is fairly cut and dried.

Or is it?

Let’s assume two things. First, Administrator Szabo has every intention of sticking to the letter of the law, and to the intent of the program, by awarding project grants based on merit. Second, any program involving government dollars is going to involve politics. That’s just the way it is. Anyone who doesn’t believe this needs a serious reality check.

In the case of HSR—actually, “HrSR” (“higher speed” rail, incremental improvements to existing freight rail corridors to enable  90-125 mph passenger trains)—the political game-playing will mostly come from the states. Case in point: A project in one Midwest state, we’re told, does not meet all the FRA’s criteria, in terms of project management, environmental and ridership studies, financial plan, technical score, etc. The state agency in charge of submitting the grant application asked the FRA for guidance. The FRA basically said, “You don’t meet the criteria; don’t submit the application.” We’re told, however, that this state’s Republican governor ordered the agency to submit the application anyway. Why? Because if it’s rejected, the governor can go to his constituents and claim that the Democrats running Washington won’t give his state the funds for a project that will create jobs.

Partisan politics as usual? Of course. Did you expect anything different?

Another disturbing thought: Will states that are worse off economically (i.e., high unemployment level) have their projects approved over those from other, less-beleaguered states, even if their applications don’t fully meet the FRA’s criteria? Put another way, will there be pressure from the White House to make exceptions for political reasons, thereby funneling money away from projects that are more deserving?

We’re not saying that one project may be better than another, and we have no firm evidence to suggest that the process will be tainted by political considerations. But there are examples of this happening with projects of national interest or significance. 

Recall that, following President John F. Kennedy’s bold directive in 1961 that the United States land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by 1969, NASA built its massive Mission Control facility outside of Houston, Tex.—900 miles away from Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the Apollo spacecraft were assembled and launched. Why? Because Vice President Lyndon Johnson, whom Kennedy placed in charge of the space program, wanted the facility in his home state. Talk about bringing home the bacon!

President Obama has said the $8 billion grant program is a “down payment” on HSR. Let’s hope the down payment isn’t on a sub-prime railroad.

Comments? Email me at wvantuono@sbpub.com.william-c.-vantuono-signatu.jpg

William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.