High-Speed Rail - Getting it Right in the New Year

Much has been made in the last few weeks about high-speed rail becoming a political football, tossed around by elected officials to serve their own political objectives. Aside from signaling a destructive new trend of politicizing infrastructure, the recent rejection of federal high-speed rail funds by governors-elect in Wisconsin and Ohio also reflects the inevitable growing pains of a new federal program, forced to quickly come of age in the midst of the worst economic climate in decades.

But be that as it may, in this time of heightened scrutiny of government spending, it is critical that we get high-speed rail right in the coming two years, or we risk the termination of this important initiative. With $10.5 billion in high-speed rail now awarded in selected corridors around the county, there is time in the coming season for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration to take a step back, examine how the program is administered, and make some tweaks to improve its chances for success.

The structure of the nation's High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program was determined by bipartisan legislation passed in 2008 at the end of President George W. Bush's presidency. This law, the Passenger Rail Investment Improvement Act, created the competitive program for high-speed rail grants that the federal government has used to award billions of high-speed rail dollars to the states. This law empowers and encourages states to develop state rail plans and invest in rail corridors to improve intercity passenger service.

When the stimulus bill passed in 2009 and $8 billion suddenly came available for this already-in-place program, states with rail plans and rail planning expertise were best positioned to win the competitive grant process (i.e. California, Florida, Illinois and Washington). States with no existing rail plans or consensus about where to invest (i.e. Texas, Georgia) received little to nothing. (And the Northeast Corridor states were left in the cold because the corridor lacks an up-to-date Environmental Impact Statement, which is the subject of a whole other article.)

The reliance on states to drive the federal program is both a public relations and practical challenge for the FRA. While the success or failure of the program is reflected on the Obama Administration, the responsibility for carrying out new high-speed rail projects will come down to the capacity and competency of the states. States that are generally cash-strapped and inexperienced in high-speed rail or conventional rail planning.

There are two ways to address this problem. One is to pass new rail legislation that deemphasizes the state role and consolidates more power for high-speed rail planning, financing and implementation at the federal level, while increasing capacity at the FRA to carry out these increased responsibilities. Whether this is advisable or not is a discussion for another day. In the current political climate, it's not likely to happen.

The second and more politically viable option is to focus more resources, training, advocacy and outreach at the state level, to better engage Governors, state legislators, departments of transportation and the electorate in high-speed rail issues. The FRA could take the lead by establishing a clear pathway to capital grants for states that currently have no high-speed rail planning capacity. This would seem to be the intention of their high-speed rail "planning grants" announced in the past year, which are valued in the millions, rather than the billions. The federal government actually did something very similar back in the 1880s in helping states learn to build better roads by teaching paving techniques. The feds could make it clear that receiving a planning grant, and participating in federal high-speed rail planning professional training sponsored by the FRA, are qualifying steps for receiving larger federal capital grants in coming rounds of grant-making. Last spring RPA's America 2050 program led a two-day High-speed rail planning charrette in Portland, Ore., for state and local officials and business and civic leaders from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia engaged in planning for the Cascadia HSR corridor. This could become a model for an FRA-funded program in other HSR corridors.

The civic, business and advocacy communities can get into the act as well, by contacting their governors and state legislators to let them know that high-speed rail is a priority and deserving of state funds. Unless states invest in developing state rail plans with public input and retain rail planning staff in their departments of transportation, their chances for winning federal high-speed rail grants are slim. This is a lesson that New York State has learned in its efforts to develop and improve passenger service in the Empire Corridor.

Finally, the FRA should spend time educating states and the public about its criteria for making high-speed rail grants. With a better understanding of what makes a successful high-speed rail grant application and high-speed rail project, states receive better guidance and don't waste their time on projects that won't attract ridership or fail to integrate with their existing state transportation priorities and land use decisions. America 2050's forthcoming report "High-Speed Rail in America," to be released in January, discusses the factors that contribute to ridership demand for high-speed rail, like population density, employment concentrations, connecting transit networks and existing air markets. The report encourages the federal government to adopt an approach that evaluates those factors.

Surely, the FRA has much work ahead of it, working with the states receiving federal grants to ensure the funding will be spent properly and wisely. But spending some time on restructuring the program and bolstering capacity at the state level will improve its chances with the next Congress to secure appropriations and the continuation and growth of this important national program.