Tuesday, October 05, 2010

APTA: High speed rail plans taking shape

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SAN ANTONIO, TEX.: At the American Public Transportation Association Annual Meeting, breakout sessions on high and higher speed rail have attracted the most participants. Tuesday’s session, introduced by David Carroll of sponsor Parsons Brinckerhoff, was a well-attended progress report featuring Deputy Federal Railroad Administrator Karen Rae, newly installed Amtrak Vice President-High Speed Rail Al Engel, Ohio DOT Rail Director and Chair-APTA Intercity and High Speed Rail Committee Jolene Molitoris, Florida Rail Enterprise Executive Director Kevin Thibault, and Texas DOT Rail Division Director Bill Glavin.

aptahsrpanel.jpgRae, who moderated, related how FRA is essentially “working in a greenfield site” with its high speed rail development program. “We are looking for consistency,” she said. “We need to build domestic manufacturing capacity as well as human capacity.” Rae referred to HSR and HrSR as “a network of multiple lines connected to other forms of public transportation.”

The perpetually exuberant Jolene Molitoris detailed the Ohio DOT’s ambitious plans for what she calls the “3C and D Project,” an HrSR network connecting Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton, “the densest population corridor in the nation without passenger rail service.” ODOT’s short-term goal is implementing 79-mph conventional passenger rail service in the region by 2012, then using this as a base to get to 110-mph HrSR. She noted that the region is home to 220,000 university students located within 10 miles of proposed passenger rail stations. Providing these budding “talented young professionals” with a reliable rail transportation system “will help encourage them to stay in Ohio.”

“We are re-framing our public message on passenger rail to say that transportation must move our economies,” Molitoris said. “The [American Reinvestment and] Recovery Act taught us how to work faster, more collaboratively, more transparently, and more multimodally. Those same lessons will allow us to deliver the high speed and intercity rail network of the future.”

Molitoris also talked about Ohio’s commitment to freight rail, referring to the capital dollars the state has invested in public-private partnerships to build CSX’s National Gateway and Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor.

Florida Rail Enterprise, said Kevin Thibault, is an agency within the Florida DOT created by the state legislature to administer Florida’s HSR program. The first phase consists of 84 miles and five stops connecting a downtown Tampa Multimodal Center to Orlando International Airport. Trainsets will operate at 168 mph, primarily using the median of Interstate 4. “This highway was purposely widened to the outside several years ago to accommodate a future HSR line,” he said. Fifty percent of phase one funding is in place, “and if all the stars align, we will release a Request for Qualification in late November 2010, followed by a shortlist and Request for Proposals in March 2011.” A DBOM (design-build-operate-maintain) contract is to be awarded in late 2011, with construction to commence in 2012.

Texas’s state rail plan is in its early development stages, said Bill Glavin. Texas has neary 10,400 miles of rail lines and 44 freight railroads. Only three intercity passenger trains—Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle—operate in the state. The “Texas Triangle”—Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio—is among the fastest-growing population center in the U.S. and is ripe for passenger rail. Projects will be funded through PPPs, Glavin said. He also stressed that the state would take a “do no harm to our freight rail system” approach.

Al Engel opened his remarks by saying that Amtrak “hopes it wil have the opportunity to work with Florida, Texas, and Ohio as an operator.” He then described Amtrak’s long-range vision for Next-Generation High Speed Rail in the Northeast, which he’s named the “3T Corridor” because it “annually generates $3 trillion in economic activity with the largest population density” in the U.S. If all goes as envisioned, Boston-Washington trip times will be reduced to about three hours, “consistent with HSR systems in other nations.” Fully built out in about 30 years, Amtrak’s Northeast services will include Super Express, Regional Express, Shoreline Express, and Keystone Express services.