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October 12, 2009

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2009 APTA ANNUAL MEETING

The Vision and the Blueprint: High-Speed Rail in the U.S.
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER,Senior Managing Editor

It was standing room only at the Oct. 6 session on high-speed rail session during the APTA Annual Meeting. “That’s a declaration of interest by the people of APTA—and it’s the same as it is across the nation,” said moderator Rod Diridon, chair of the APTA High-Speed and Intercity Rail Committee, and executive director, Mineta Transportation Institute.

Diridon gave a brief history of high-speed rail, noting how these systems have carried billions of riders without fatalities, a fact he contrasted with the 43,000 deaths on U.S. highways last year. Why hasn’t America implemented high-speed rail by now, he asked rhetorically? “Because,” he said, “the U.S. was held back by our addiction to petroleum and the car industry.”

But, he cautioned, the $8 billion for high-speed rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has created a situation where new organizations are being formed to represent or work on behalf of high-speed rail advocates. He argued that it is in the best interest of those advocates to look to APTA and other established groups instead.

He stressed that the purpose of the session was to talk about the objectives of APTA and the state of passenger rail: “We need to focus the energy on the long-standing consortiums that are working not on their profit, or on advocacy that is antagonist vs. cooperative—to allow the program to be successful for users.” Borrowing a labor term, he urged that the attendees “do not patronize” these groups.

The first speaker was Karen J. Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), of whom Diridon said: “She knows what she’s talking about, and she’s our champion.”

Rae reported on the steps FRA is taking to ensure the best chance of high-speed rail success. “In three weeks, we spoke with 1,200 people to find out what it would take to implement this agenda,” she said. “We are not going to build ‘rails to nowhere,’” she emphasized. “They have to connect locally.”

She added that FRA is looking to design “a network that uses the right speed for the right environment.”

FRA’s evaluation process for this program goes beyond increasing ridership, Rae said; it will consider how much energy will be saved, the timeliness of completion, regional allocation, and safety. Calling the last element “critically important,” she said the agency will look at end safety performance as it applies to passenger, employees, and equipment.

“How do we maintain and improve our safety standards, and can we do it in ways that are smarter?” she asked. Other questions that should be addressed in a successful application include: Do you have a state rail plan? Is it multimodal? Do you have partners? How does the design of that network fit into the national goal?

The applications, she said, are “technology-neutral. It’s what you can deliver and how you can deliver it.”

Rae closed her presentation by saying: “This will not happen if we don’t all work together in partnership. I look forward to doing that with my state partners and all of you in the room.”

The next speaker, Frank J. Busalacchi, secretary, Wisconsin DOT, was described by Diridon as “a mix of teamster and intellect that makes you want to do what he suggests, one way or another.”

“We all know that building a high-speed rail system in this country won’t be cheap,” said Busalacchi, “and we’re doing our best to convince [federal officials] that high-speed rail is a good investment in America.” He called the national highway system model “critical” for high-speed rail. “We can’t afford a bureaucratic procedure that will be unwieldy to follow and [difficult] to implement,” he said, urging that FRA use the “80-20 model.”

Busalacchi also made the point that no high-speed rail project will be successful “unless we recognize that we must be full partners with the freight rail industry, because much of the track is theirs.”

“We can no longer be satisfied with the status quo,” he stated, “and we are ready to move ahead right now.”

The last presenter was Eugene A. Conti Jr., chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Standing Committee on Rail Transportation and secretary of North Carolina DOT.

Conti began by citing two North Carolina editorials published that morning, quoting from the Charlotte Observer: “There is nothing small minded about the [state’s high-speed rail] pitch … the North Carolina application is brash—it ought to be.”

In discussing the AASHTO committee, Conti said: “We have an active membership. We will establish intercity passenger rail and high-speed rail as a vital component of AASHTO’s vision.”

While he said his team looked forward to building the system in North Carolina and working with Virginia and South Carolina and “our other neighbors as well,” Conti added: “This is not just about a high-speed rail network, but connecting our cities throughout the northeast—and the key element is, we need to be building those connections seamlessly, so when we get folks on the trains into the center cities, they can then complete their journey.”

HDR ENGINEERING, INC. sponsored the session.

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