APTA | Passenger Transport
February 1, 2010

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Assembling an Optimal U.S. Rail Transit System: Appropriate, Connected, and Funded for the Long Term
BY PETER GERTLER, High-Speed Rail Services Chair, HNTB

As a nation, we are entering the most exciting era in transportation we have seen in half a century.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is poised to announce its first grants for our nation’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. The grants, to be awarded in multiple rounds, ultimately will total $8 billion.

These grants will help move America toward a multi-modal, state-of-the-art transportation network. Working in combination with our vital local transit systems, as well as the Interstate Highway System and our air travel network, high-speed rail will enable us to relieve congested highways and airports, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and help in the battle against global warming.

At the same time, the FRA continues to develop and refine a National Rail Plan, which will serve as the blueprint for something on par with the interstate highways or our space program. To turn that blueprint into reality, we must understand all the moving parts and how they can and should work together.

Support for high-speed rail has grown significantly in recent years, but the discussion occasionally diverges into a debate that pits a program for incremental high-speed rail (in the range of 110 mph) against one for transformative high-speed rail (180-plus mph). The truth is, high-speed rail, as we define it in this country, constitutes a family of rail programs. Different programs work more effectively in different markets and require different levels of investment.

In reality, we should not view it as a choice of one high-speed rail program over another. Rather, we should focus on building the best and most appropriate passenger rail system we can, with incremental and transformative programs serving as the building blocks. To make this happen, a dedicated and sustainable commitment and funding source—not only a one-time, crisis-based stimulus package—is necessary for the ultimate development of both high-speed rail programs.

Certainly, our approach must be tailored for the U.S. rail system and its unique features. In contrast to its passenger rail system, America has one of the world’s most sophisticated, comprehensive freight rail networks, which has helped us attain the status of a global economic superpower.

However, unlike the high-speed rail pioneer nations in Europe and Asia, most intercity rail lines in the U.S. are owned and maintained by the freight railroads. That ownership impacts the time it takes for us to make dramatic changes to our passenger rail system.

But even the Europeans and Asians did not develop highly advanced rail systems overnight. They had to deal with challenges posed by older rail lines, and they used both incremental and transformative rail programs appropriately in their advancement toward the world-class passenger rail systems they have today.

In the U.S., transformative high-speed rail is best suited to regions with significant travel densities to provide frequent express service between population centers 200 to 600 miles apart, generally located in the “mega” regions of our country.

Because transformative high-speed rail systems need dedicated rights-of-way, must be fully grade-separated, and must use state-of-the-art technology not currently available in the U.S., transformative high-speed rail lends itself to a widespread national effort such as the ones that spawned our interstate highways and our exploration of space. The states that have applied for grants to fund transformative high-speed rail are California, Florida, Texas, and the Midwest (between Chicago and St. Louis), and they are to be commended for their vision.

The states that applied for grants to fund incremental high-speed rail should be commended for their vision and efforts as well. Incremental programs, which generally will upgrade existing freight corridors with more conventional intercity technologies, are more suited to state-by-state competition for funding.

These states want to develop the kinds of rail systems that, while not transformative in technology, will certainly transform travel as we know it today. Incremental offers the best and most effective option to fit those states’ needs and potential.

The reality is that our nation has only one national high-speed rail program now: the one the FRA grants are funding, which has different states and programs competing against each other for funding. But it doesn’t have to be this way. High-speed rail needs a dedicated source of funding in a program where incremental and transformative programs do not compete against each other, but are valued for their own merits and prudently nurtured.

As an industry, we need to insert the idea of a dedicated funding source for all high-speed rail into the discussion of the new transportation authorization bill. We must not let this opportunity to “set the rules” for funding of the nation’s transportation system slip away.

Let us not forget that, when it comes to maximizing the nation’s transportation system, high-speed rail in and of itself is no panacea. To fulfill its purpose, high-speed rail must be connected to local transit systems—including bus and light rail options—to build a truly successful transportation system. These systems solve the issue of the “last mile.” In other words, what good is it to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two and a half hours if you can’t get from the station to your business or home conveniently?

Clearly there must be a critical melding within our transportation system and the plan for its funding. For example, we could take a portion of federal high-speed rail funding—hypothetically, let’s assume 1 percent—and dedicate it to local transit connections to high-speed rail facilities and services. The result would be a win-win-win for high-speed rail, local transit systems, and the traveling public.

Let’s pool our knowledge, experience, resources and enthusiasm, and work together to make it happen.

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