Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Let’s keep spinning our wheels

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Let’s keep spinning our wheels

The other day I found a buried snippet of information on the Federal Railroad Administration website pertaining to high speed rail. Dated March 11, 2016, it’s a “Notice of Request for Proposals for Implementing a High-Speed Rail Corridor.” Hmmm . . . This looks interesting. I wonder why it was kept so quiet?

Keep reading and you’ll find out.

The RFP abstract reads as follows: “FRA is soliciting and encouraging the submission of proposals to finance, design, construct, operate, and maintain a high-speed rail (HSR) system. Section 11308 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, Public Law 114-94 (Dec. 4, 2015), requires the Department of Transportation to ‘issue a request for proposals for projects for the financing, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a high-speed passenger rail system operating within a high-speed rail corridor.’ The FRA is encouraging interested parties to submit proposals that meet the requirements outlined in this request for proposals (RFP). Based on the proposals received, the Department of Transportation may establish commissions to further review and develop proposals.”

“Say, this is encouraging,” I thought. But then I kept reading:

“However, no federal funding is associated with this provision, and Congress prohibited in the FAST Act any federal agency from taking subsequent actions to further ‘implement, establish, facilitate, or otherwise act upon any proposals’ submitted under this RFP—other than the actions described in this notice—without ‘explicit statutory authority’ to be subsequently provided by Congress.”

OK, let me get this straight: The government wants proposals for a project for which there is no funding, and that may never be funded. This is a requirement in the FAST Act? How can something be done “fast”, or at all, if there’s no money for it and no reasonable expectation that it will go beyond an RFP? Why is it in there in the first place? Am I missing something here?

Who in their right mind would even bother to submit a proposal, given the U.S. government’s dismal track record with high-speed rail? The government is reluctant to fund even the Northeast Corridor at a level sufficient to maintain a state of good repair. As we say in Jersey, sounds like a big freakin’ waste of time!

If you are so inclined to take the time to read the notice, you can download it from the link below. If interested, maybe you can ask to become a member of one of the commissions the Secretary of Transportation might establish to “further review proposals that the Secretary determines warrant further consideration.”

We’ve been spinning our wheels on this stuff for about 30 years, and, aside from a few good initiatives on higher-speed rail (HrSR) corridors—Chicago-St. Louis, privately funded All Aboard Florida, incremental improvements to the Northeast Corridor, among others—what do we have to show for it?

California High Speed Rail has been struggling along, dodging brickbats from hostile politicians like Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who for reasons known only to him has been hell-bent on stopping what could be the most significant improvement to transportation in his home state. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me! Remember Texas TGV? Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines shot that one down. Florida Overland Express? Gov. Jeb Bush said as soon as he took office in 1999, “The uncertainty and risk to Florida’s taxpayers are too great to continue funding this project with our tax dollars.”

Then, after eight years of Bush-league transportation came a breath of fresh air: President Obama’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, $8 billion worth of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 economic stimulus dollars. The HSR community danced for joy. Consultants were doing headstands. Finally! Finally!

The celebration lasted about two years. The FRA’s “shotgun” approach—instead of picking one good project and fully funding it, stuff the money into a Remington® Model 870™ Express® Super Magnum Laminate Pump-Action and scatter the dollars all over the country—didn’t work. A good chunk of the money was sent back to the USDOT and (thankfully) reallocated to the NEC and a few HrSR projects. Florida’s third HSR project, the first leg of which would have linked Tampa and Orlando using the median of Interstate 4, was part of that, but Republican Gov. Rick Scott shut it down and sent the money back to Washington, as did Republicans Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and John Kasich (Ohio) with their states’ grants. Forward-thinking individuals, these guys!

What happens if “Tronald Dump” wins the White House? Do you think he’ll try to take all of Amtrak’s funding and spend it building a wall to keep all those Mexican criminals out, to Make America Great Again? Oh, wait, I forgot: Mexico is going to pay for the wall.

The list of U.S. corridors where HSR could be developed hasn’t changed much, and they’re listed in the FRA’s latest RFP.

I think we need to take the approach VIA Rail Canada is taking with the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor: For about one-third the cost of a “true” (200-mph) HSR system, construct an electrified, dedicated HrSR (110-mph) system using mostly existing right-of-way. VIA, under the leadership of its visionary president and CEO, Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, will be able to do this because the Canadian people were smart enough to throw Neanderthal Prime Minister Steven Harper and most of the equally clueless Conservatives out of office and elect visionary Liberal Justin Trudeau, whose agenda includes federal investment in projects that improve public transportation and the environment. And that means intercity passenger rail.

Stay tuned for our April issue, where we’ll describe VIA’s project in detail. Here’s a teaser:

“The potential for a good return on investment is determined by the cost at entry, not the price at exit,” said Desjardins-Siciliano. “The price of entry here is much lower than that for a high-speed project. Therefore, your potential for a better return is greatly enhanced. The C$4 billion price tag drives 7 million passengers a year—up from 2 million, now. That compares to a C$10-$12 billion investment in high-speed that would only drive 10 million passengers. High-frequency trains at top speeds of 110 mph can be done quickly and cheaply, vs. a high-speed project, which would cost more, take more time to build, and which would ultimately have a consumer price tag that excludes the middle class. . . . We don’t believe high-speed is worth it: Better times would still be made by planes at no financial advantage to the consumer, and without being disruptive to the economic mix and redundancy required from a national transportation system. We are convinced that the greatest contribution we can make is taking those 5 million car trips a year off the highways, making Canadians more productive by not wasting time in highway bottlenecks and enhancing their safety, and making an economic contribution to Canada by allowing freight and passenger trains to run independently and efficiently.”

Pretty good, eh?

William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

With Railway Age since 1992, William C. 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, among them Next-Generation Train Control, Light Rail, and Rail Insights. He is the author or co-author or editor of several books, among them All About Railroading; John Armstrong’s The Railroad: What It Is, What It Does; Railway Age’s Comprehensive Railroad Dictionary; and Planning, Engineering, and Operating Light Rail, With Applications in New Jersey.

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