Monday, December 12, 2011

U.S. HSR: Ready or not?

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor
Optimists insist the U.S. is finally poised to join the world’s “true” high speed rail club. Skeptics say a hostile Congress could make that advance more difficult. Both may be right.
Wanted: One successful “true” U.S. high speed rail system, capable of speeds of 150 mph (preferably more), generating economic development and demonstrating energy efficiency, and sporting ridership that shows U.S. HSR is, well, wanted.

Indeed, 2011 may be the defining moment for U.S. high speed rail—provided that, first, there is a national will for such a product, given the political turmoil and economic stress; and second, if such a will does exist, U.S. HSR efforts can begin to keep pace with those of the rest of the world.

According to Albrecht P. Engel, Amtrak’s vice president, high speed rail, the U.S. path is clear. “The next half-century will be defined by the emergence of ‘megaregions’— extended corridors of interconnected metropolitan areas, with shared economic sectors and linked infrastructure,” Engel says. “High speed rail can and should be among those links.”

But a new Republican House of Representatives arrived in Washington this month, ready to ponder rescinding federal funding for numerous projects, including much of the $5 billion the Obama Administration seeks from Congress over five years for fast trains. Though $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding (“stimulus funds”) seems more secure, such funding is at best a federal down payment for much more substantial funds required for any U.S. HSR line to be built.

“The future of high speed and intercity passenger rail is the great unknown,” asserts Ray Chambers, principal of Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm. “While it receives ongoing funding under the existing continuing resolution, the prospects for the current program are very much up in the air. There will undoubtedly be an effort in the coming months terminate any existing passenger rail funding from the stimulus program that has not been obligated by the FRA to the states.”

The John Mica factor

But while Republicans endured (and surmounted) charges of being “the party of ‘No’” in 2010, the new House majority may seek to put its own stamp on U.S. HSR, in the name of reform.

House Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is a perennial critic of Amtrak. But he also has been consistently in favor of “true” HSR for the Northeast Corridor (operator to be determined), sometimes seemingly even to the point of favoring NEC HSR over any effort in his home state. As the new chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Mica’s posture and preferences may affect U.S. HSR efforts to a great degree.

Says Chambers, “The 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act program of infrastructure grants to the states was a Republican initiative. The program of grants to the states for development of solid intercity passenger corridors could become the centerpiece for a Republican reform program. The state grant program, coupled with maximum private participation, competition for corridor operations, and vastly expanded rail innovative (repayable) finance, could be the beginning of a robust new program. This can take place in the context of the next six-year surface transportation authorization.”

Chambers is cautiously optimistic on this. “I am expecting incoming House T&I Chairman Mica to include a Rail Title in his bill with a commitment to a reform program for high speed and intercity passenger rail,” he says. “If Chairman Mica can achieve a bipartisan compromise in the House, we will have a chance for a new beginning in establishing a network.”

Concerns dog California progress

Uncertainty in Washington notwithstanding, U.S. HSR efforts are slowly creeping forward. Burdened by its own state budget deficit of $28 billion, California still has money—from both state and federal sources—identified to at least attempt a launch of its planned $44 billion, 800-mile HSR system that would link San Diego and Los Angeles, in the south, with twin termini in San Francisco and Sacramento, the state capital. The Golden State’s reputation of being the nation’s trendsetter, though somewhat tarnished, may also matter; were California a separate country, its gross state product would rank it No. 8 in world economic clout.

As 2011 began, California had $5.5 billion lined up for its HSR effort, and had chosen the state’s Central Valley as the location to commence construction.

HSR critics immediately leaped on the geographic choice, calling any initial leg a “train to nowhere,” even as the plan was adjusted to incorporate Bakersfield, a city of significant size in the Valley. Ironically, the new, anti-passenger-rail governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, rejecting federal funding for those state’s HrSR (higher speed rail) efforts, in effect supplied an additional $600 million to California, strengthening the Golden State’s fiscal position and, perhaps, making true U.S. HSR that much more likely.

HSR backers, including the California High Speed Rail Authority, justify choosing the Central Valley over more populous locations such as Los Angeles for its economic stimulus potential, even citing Federal Railroad Administration requirements directing such action. But strong resistance to HSR in the San Francisco Bay area, ranging from wrangling over exact routes and location (elevated, at-grade, or underground) to blatant Not-In-My-Backyard opposition, make the Central Valley, at this point, a less contentious HSR launch point.

Florida HSR forges ahead

Florida’s decades-long on-again, off-again flirtation with HSR is currently on, with the state’s Department of Transportation pointedly noting that in 2010 it matched $2.39 billion in federal funds with $280 million in state contributions. Like California, Florida has received additional federal funding—in this case, an additional $342 million in December—originally destined for the Midwest states. The combined $2.67 billion covers the projected cost phase one, running 84 miles from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport, largely within the median of Interstate 4, and designed for operating speeds of 168 mph. Florida Rail Enterprise, a public/private partnership consisting of FDOT, HNTB and Wilbur Smith Associates (general consultants), Freshfields (legal consultant), and KPMG (financial consultant), is overseeing the project.

FDOT says it expects several consortium teams to compete for the right to build the first phase, and at least two have announced they will do so. One such team includes Amtrak, French National Railways (SNCF), and Bechtel Infrastructure Corp. A second consortium, led by Alstom Transport, also includes two construction firms, Vinci plc and OHL International Construction, Virgin Group, Sir Richard Branson’s investment group, engineering companies AECOM and PBS&J, and Archer Western Contractors.

State HSR advocates are hopeful that such potential business interest (and clout) will convince new Gov. Rick Scott to support the program and not reject federal funding, especially since the first phase is essentially fully funded. Surveys indicate most state residents support HSR development.

Revamping the NEC

Not to be left out, Amtrak last September issued “A Vision for High Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor,” a 30-page outline of true HSR linking Boston, New York, and Washington, envisioned to incorporate existing NEC infrastructure with new high speed rights-of-way, new stations (some underground), and other amenities.

Coinciding with the report, Amtrak appointed Engel to head up its HSR efforts—as owner/operator in the NEC and as a potential operator for other U.S. HSR operations, including Florida and California.

On its home turf, Amtrak will attempt to upgrade the NEC to keep pace with anticipated growth in demand. “In the near term, Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the state governments of the Northeast have a plan to improve and maximize use of existing Northeast Corridor infrastructure,” Engel says. “Among other things, it will modestly increase Acela Express top speed to 160 mph, and improve commuter rail operations. Amtrak also is planning for the purchase of a new fleet of Acela trains that will have more seating capacity.”

But incremental HSR won’t be enough, Engel notes. “Even with these upgrades, however, the demand for service is expected to outstrip capacity by 2030,” he says.