President Obama on Thursday, April 16, released an unprecedented long-term strategic plan to advance U.S. high speed rail development, beginning with the $8 billion “down payment” provided through the Administration’s recent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, augmented by $1 billion per year for five years in budget appropriations.
"Make no little plans," the President said at a nationally televised news conference as he presented a plan—centered on rail—for the future of U.S. transportation. It would begin with upgrading existing rail lines—a foundation, so to speak—and then progress to building dedicated high speed corridors, as has been done elsewhere in the world. In great detail and with an almost startling breadth of knowledge about the high speed industry, he talked about the many benefits of high speed rail, among them the convenience of center city to center city travel and relief from highway and air travel congestion.
“If we want to move from recovery to prosperity, then we have to do alittle bit more,” Obama said. “We have to build a new foundation for our future growth.” Citing congested highways and air routes, as well as being “at the mercy of fluctuating gas prices,” he noted that high speed rail wasn’t “some fanciful pie-in-the-sky vision of the future; it is now. It is happening right now; it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.”
Joined by Vice President Joe Biden (who would not have been able to conceal his enthusiasm, even if he tried) and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the President pointed to the 10 rail routes identified for high speed rail development, defined (in U.S. terms) as capable of 110 mph speeds (see map, below). The 10 include:
1. California Corridor (Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego)
2. Pacific Northwest Corridor (Eugene, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver BC)
3. South Central Corridor (Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock)
4. Gulf Coast Corridor (Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta)
5. Chicago Hub Network (Chicago, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville)
6. Florida Corridor (Orlando, Tampa, Miami)
7. Southeast Corridor (Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, Macon, Columbia, Savannah, Jacksonville)
8. Keystone Corridor (Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh)
9. Empire Corridor (New York City, Albany, Buffalo)
10. Northern New England Corridor (Boston, Montreal, Portland, Springfield, New Haven, Albany).
Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which operates at top speeds of 150 mph, isn’t identified as one of the 10, but the Department of Transportation did note “opportunities for the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to compete for funds to improve the nation’s only existing high speed rail service.”
Administration officials said they will take a collaborative approach to formulate HSR programs, including working with stakeholders to gather feedback to advance given routes.
The program divides projects eligible for funding into “first round” candidates “that can be completed quickly and yield measurable, near-term job creation and other public benefits, and “next round” items “to include proposals for comprehensive high speed programs covering entire corridors or sections of corridors.”
Within the latter group, California’s proposed $44 billion, 700-mile HSR system is deemed likely to receive significant federal support, since the Golden State has committed almost $10 billion of its own funds to advance the project.
Observers pointed out that Obama’s support for U.S. passenger rail development has exceeded that of any other U.S. president in recent times. Some had expected the President to allow Vice President Biden, a frequent Amtrak traveler and longtime passenger rail supporter, to handle any such program by himself, but Obama has continued to give direct input into U.S. HSR efforts.
The freight railroad response to the President's announcement was positive but cautious. "The high speed rail plan . . . iswelcome news for all Americans," AAR said in a statement. "We applaud the President's leadershipin recognizing the importance of rail to the future of our nation'stransportation network. As members of the OneRail Coalition, we support expanded use of bothfreight and passenger rail in this country. Luckily, those goals arenot mutually exclusive as many of the tracks over which our passengertrains operate are owned by the freight railroads. However, it isessential that improvements aimed at developing high speed passengerroutes do not ignore freight rail’s need to move our nation’s goods. . . . America has the best freight railroad system inthe world; there is no reason why we can't have the best passenger railsystem as well. We look forward to working with the Administration,Congress, and the states to see that the promise of expanded freight andhigh speed passenger rail is realized."
Testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation on April 2, BNSF chief executive Matt Rose (lower right), a supporter of the OneRail Coaltion, said that, with significant upgrades, "it is possible toincrease speeds from 79 mph to 90 mph on tracks that both freight andpassenger trains use. At sustained speeds in excess of 90mph, passenger train operations will need to be segregated from freightoperations on a separate track."
To see the President's televised press conference, CLICK HERE. Vice President Biden, a long-time staunch passenger rail supporter and daily rider on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor during his entire Senate career, provided opening remarks. To see Biden's remarks, CLICK HERE.
—Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor, with William C. Vantuono, Editor