APTA | Passenger Transport
February 1, 2010

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U.S. High-Speed Rail Reaches a Critical Juncture
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

If there was ever a pivotal moment in high-speed rail in America, it would be April 16, 2009, when President Barack Obama announced his vision for transforming the nation’s transportation network.

“Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation and ending up just blocks from your destination,” he said. “It’s happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.”

That day was made possible by another key moment on Feb. 17, 2009, when the president signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), making available $8 billion in high-speed rail funding.

With the administration’s support, the nation is embarking on an ambitious plan \to build a connected high-speed rail system throughout the country.

“It’s not that this is the first administration that has talked about regionalism, but rather it’s that it’s talking about the tie-in to the mass transit systems and making networks that interconnect regionally,” said Joe Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Pompano Beach and APTA vice chair-commuter and intercity rail. “I think that’s fantastic. How will we make those connectors work? That’s where I think it’s a tremendous opportunity—to connect those regions.”

Since February 2009, the $8 billion appropriated through ARRA has been supplemented by an additional $2.5 billion from the Fiscal Year 2010 transportation appropriations bill—for a total of $10.5 billion.

Once the opportunity arrived to submit applications, the response from states was quick and eye-opening, with at least 34 states submitting proposals valued at $57 billion!

High-Speed Rail Benefits
The benefits of environmentally friendly, energy-efficient high-speed rail networks are numerous. These projects will create highly skilled jobs in the transportation industry, ramping up capacity within state DOTs that must plan their oversight, and will also provide the opportunity to build a vibrant rail manufacturing sector, revitalizing domestic industries supplying transportation products and services, and spurring business productivity along all corridors.

They will reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil while keeping billions of dollars in the U.S. economy; decrease greenhouse gas emissions; help meet national and international climate change goals; and improve air quality.

And they will mitigate congestion, improve connectivity, and provide travel choices to a U.S. population that is expected to grow by 50 percent between 2000 and 2050. At the same time, rural and small urban communities will benefit from the increased number of transfer points and the feeder services connecting with new high-speed rail corridors.

What’s Required for Success
To implement such an ambitious undertaking, however, will require a new level of innovation and expertise.

Careful planning of a national network of high-speed rail corridors will maximize the capacity and efficiency of the nation’s transportation infrastructure (rail, highway, aviation, and other modes) and unify regions of the nation. But developing such a network will require a sizable financial commitment from federal and state governments along with creative financing solutions that include private sector resources—all of which will go well beyond the traditional public transportation funding sources.

Two factors that set the U.S. apart from many other nations with high-speed rail—multi-use rail lines and private ownership of many lines—compel the need for negotiated partnerships with freight rail operators as well as state, local, and regional governments.

No new system of such magnitude can operate without concomitant sets of standards. So safety and operational standards need to be developed, adopted, or updated to reflect the particular geography, operational characteristics, and intermodal realities of America’s transportation network.

Specific areas that must be addressed include positive train control, sealed corridors, interoperability, equipment specifications, joint procurement program possibilities, and shared corridor operations.

Advocacy and Information Sharing
While the federal government is a critically key partner, successful high-speed rail corridors must also must have effective advocates on the ground: at city halls; in local chambers of commerce; and in statehouses as well as in Congress.

The focus on this important initiative notwithstanding, the fact remains, as the president said, that high-speed rail—with all its attendant technologies—does not yet exist in America. This is the time, therefore, to seek out information and lessons learned from our international allies and partners, to build upon their experiences.

When high-speed rail experts in the U.S. can understand both the successes and challenges of implementing and operating systems elsewhere in the world, they will expand their ability to advance such systems quickly and successfully in America’s corridors.

Implementation of a vibrant, national high-speed rail program will require the identification of solutions to an interconnected set of issues, including an appropriate regulatory environment, uses of right-of-way, reasonable limits on liability, and additional issues that will facilitate the growth of rail. The experience of APTA and others in advocacy and negotiation will help new corridors tackle these issues effectively and efficiently. [See sidebar on APTA’s role in developing high-speed rail in the U.S.]

“On a personal note,” said Giulietti, “I am actually thrilled that I’m involved in this as vice chair, because I get to represent both the high-speed rail and commuter rail communities in this as we move forward.”

Building on the rail renaissance currently underway in America, the U.S. is poised to advance new express high-speed corridors, develop existing and emerging regional high-speed corridors, and upgrade reliability and service on conventional intercity and commuter rail services. The goal is to produce results that will move this country forward—literally and figuratively—putting it on track for high-speed corridor development in the decades to come.

APTA and HSGTA: A Legacy Comes to the Fore

APTA draws on the legacy members of the former High-Speed Ground Transportation Association (HSGTA) and their institutional memory to lead its advocacy efforts for high-speed rail. HSGTA, founded in 1983, merged with APTA during the 2006 Rail Conference in New York City and became part of the High Speed and Intercity Rail Committee, earlier known as the Intercity Corridor Development Committee.

This merger allowed HSGTA to bring together its expertise and reputation with APTA’s resources and legislative capacity to work toward making U.S. high-speed rail a reality.

The committee’s vision statement describes its purpose as “realiz[ing] the development of a robust national transportation network that institutionalizes and integrates national and regional intercity passenger rail services with existing commuter rail, rail transit, and bus transit services to provide a seamless network of transportation options for the traveling public.”

HSGTA, an advocacy organization for high-speed rail, entered into a management services contract with APTA in 2004. At that time, the organization represented nearly 800 members from a wide array of public and private business interests including the financial community; engineering and design firms; labor unions; rail equipment manufacturers and materials suppliers; construction companies; railroads; service providers; universities; federal, state, and local government agencies and officials; and private consultants.

Current Partnership Efforts
APTA is reaching beyond its membership to support the introduction of high-speed rail on U.S. corridors, working closely with such organizations as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and States for Passenger Rail Coalition. For research and standard-setting efforts, APTA partners with DOT, the National Academies, as well as other nonprofit organizations.

In the arena of planning, APTA and other industry associations are working with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to develop a National Rail Plan as called for by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008.

APTA is also playing an important role in hosting national conferences and workshops with sessions dedicated to high-speed rail issues. Working with the International Union of Railways (UIC), the association is presenting three International Practicums on Implementing High-Speed Rail in the United States: Feb. 8-9 in Washington, DC; Feb. 9-11 in Chicago; and Feb. 11-13 in Los Angeles. FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo and Deputy Administrator Karen Rae will headline the events.

New Web Site
To bring together current information and resources focused on making high-speed rail a reality in the U.S., APTA recently launched its newest web site. From presenting timely news stories to the FRA National Rail Plan, APTA continues its daily advocacy for the implementation of high-speed rail.

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