Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“High speed rail” defined, program guidelines established

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For the U.S., what exactly is "high speed rail?" The Department of Transportation has clarified this often-murky term by defining high speed as “Intercity Passenger Rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 mph.”

cascades-talgo.jpgThis definition is included in published guidelines, released today, for states and regions to apply for federal funds administered through the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program by the Federal Railroad Administration as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. USDOT calls this program “an historic commitment to revitalizing the nation’s rail lines by creating high speed corridors and improving existing service between cities.” The program includes an $8 billion competitive grant program and a continuing $1 billion annual acela-express.jpginvestment proposed in President Obama’s FY2010 budget.

Officials from the USDOT and FRA met with more than 1,000 people across the country to receive input for developing grant application guidelines. Vice President Joseph Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also heard from governors and state transportation chiefs at the White House on June 3 about how they hoped to boost their economies with improved passenger rail service.

The USDOT says grant applications “require rigorous financial and california-high-speed-rail-.jpgenvironmental planning to make sure projects are worthy of investment and likely to be successful. The program will offer grants for both planning and construction so that states can apply for funds no matter what stage of development their project is in. Proposals will be considered on the merits for their ability to make trips quicker and more convenient, reduce congestion on highways and at airports, and meet other environmental, energy, and safety goals. And it allows the USDOT to actively promote standard specifications for railcars and other equipment.” The guidelines can be accessed at www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/2243.

A few excerpts:

• “For the specific purposes of the HSIPR Program, a corridor is an existing or proposed intercity passenger rail route of approximately 100-600 miles in total length, linking population centers at its endpoints and typically points in between. Corridors may cross state or national boundaries and thus require a regional, multi-jurisdictional approach to planning and development.”

• “Financial plans [must] document the recent and forecasted financial condition of the applicant agency and other key partners that will provide capital or operating funding for project development and/or implementation. [They must] describe the current financial health of the aforementioned agencies, document projected capital and operating costs and revenues, and detail key assumptions and methodologies . . . [and] also detail the sources, reliability, and feasibility of funding for both capital and operating expenses and provide an overview of the project sponsor’s strategies to address potential project cost increases.”

• “The application process begins with a preapplication . . . a simple form intended to give FRA an early assessment of the universe of projects and programs, and to provide pre-applicants with any feedback necessary to complete their applications. It also allows FRA and preapplicants to start a collaborative process for ensuring early program success. Preapplications should be submitted as early as possible, but no later than July 10, 2009. Public comments are due no later than July 10, 2009. Preapplications for all funding Tracks are due no later than July 10, 2009. Applications for funding for Track 1 (Projects), Track 3 (Planning), and Track 4 (FY2009 Appropriations Projects) are due no later than Aug. 24, 2009; applications for funding Track 2 (Service Development Programs) are due no later than Oct. 2, 2009.”

• “Eligible applications in all Tracks will be individually reviewed and assessed against seven evaluation criteria organized into three categories. . . . For each of the applicable criteria, the application will be assigned a rating of between one and five points, based on the application’s fulfillment of the objectives of each criterion. These individual criterion ratings will then be accounted according to priority of criteria. . . . FRA will require a rigorous analysis of benefits and costs of proposed projects, with a focus on the transportation service and output measures that are fundamental to estimating other public benefits. Applicants must . . . ensure adequate assessment of business cases for projects.”

• “In addition to the fiscal constraints currently affecting states, local governments, and businesses, the development of a comprehensive HSIPR network faces challenges specific to this program and the rail industry. For instance, FRA recognizes the challenges associated with the need for agreements among multiple states and with private railroad companies, as well as the shortage of engineering professionals, planners, and managers with experience in HSIPR development with project implementation in the U.S. The intent to establish a pipeline of future HSIPR programs and projects poses a further challenge. The traditional pipeline for major transportation investments progresses from alternatives analysis to investment planning, preliminary engineering (PE) and environmental clearance, final design (FD), construction, and operations. With very narrow exceptions, states have historically lacked a Federal funding partner in HSIPR development; thus, many states have no HSIPR program at all, and others find their limited HSIPR development efforts stalled at various points along the typical progression. This situation necessitates a Federal funding approach that is flexible enough to support the HSIPR development efforts of each state.”