Sunday, February 28, 2010

High speed rail winners: California, Florida, Midwest

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor

Fulfilling a promise made by President Obama roughly 10 months ago (RA, May 2009, pp. 11-14), the Federal Railroad Administration late last month awarded nearly all of its $8 billion “down payment” in high speed rail funding.

Few were surprised by the top four projects—two envisioning true high speed rail, two more taking an incremental higher-speed rail (HrSR) approach—selected from the 10 corridor “contestants” (not including the Northeast Corridor). A mixture of politics, state preparedness, geographic distribution, and perceived return on investment gave the federal nod to California, the Chicago Hub, and Florida to push forward on HSR and/or HrSR. But other states and routes landed funding for incremental improvements, and disappointed contestants receiving consolation and advice from FRA on how to seek future funding more effectively.

California, with nearly $9 billion in state funding committed to its $46 billion, 700-plus mile HSR proposal, received $2.25 billion from FRA. California’s plan calls for trains hitting top speeds of 220 mph. The Golden State also received $94 million to upgrade conventional intercity rail routes.

Florida received $1.25 billion to advance its plans for HSR linking Tampa, Orlando, and Miami; the Sunshine State’s initial plan is to link Tampa and Orlando with 150 mph service, using rights-of-way the state has assembled in large measure. Not content with his own state’s triumph, Florida Rep. John Mica took time to publicly disparage FRA funds of $1.1 billion bestowed to upgrade Chicago-St. Louis service to 110 mph. But other observers found the route, part of an eight-state plan advanced for the Chicago Hub, a good fit for HrSR opportunity, potentially reducing travel times between the two Midwest cities by up to two hours, compared with current schedules of 5½ hours or more. Less noticeably, the Hub also received $244 million to upgrade Amtrak’s Detroit-Chicago service.

The Cascade Corridor landed $598 million, as Washington’s Department of Transportation made a good case for incremental improvements linking Portland, Ore., with Vancouver, B.C., via Seattle.

Also landing significant funding: Wisconsin, $822 million, to improve service between Chicago and Milwaukee and extend such service to the state capital of Madison; North Carolina, $520 million, to upgrade its cross-state Piedmont route to 90 mph operation; and Ohio, $400 million, to propel the Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati (3C) Corridor forward.

The Northeast, maligned in the past for hogging rail passenger capital funding, was not left out. New York State received $151 million, mostly to upgrade its Empire Corridor. The venerable Northeast Corridor will get $112 million for various upgrades, including engineering and environmental work for a new tunnel in Baltimore and a new BWI Airport rail station.

At least $6 million was granted for 11 states to do planning for future service. Numerous other small projects also qualified, as FRA winnowed down $102 billion “of pent-up demand” to a pool of requests totaling $57 billion, before selecting recipients, according to FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae, who told Railway Age that FRA broke down the requests “into five buckets”: major corridor projects, smaller, ready-to-go corridor work; “just short [but] out of money” options; projects FRA deemed eligible but not quite ready for work; and “a few that were ineligible, mostly because the group applying for it was itself ineligible” to apply, Rae clarified.

FRA also sought an approach flexible enough to span a broad spectrum of expectations, avoiding what Rae called extremes of “200 mph only” or “let’s just fix Amtrak.” Addressing a disappointed group of Texas Rail Advocates in Dallas late last month, Rae said all participants, including FRA itself, could benefit from the lessons learned in the grant process: to balance advocacy, technical preparedness, and environmental work; to ensure that one state or region speaks with one voice on a given proposal; and to remember that “there is no cookie-cutter formula” to any proposal.