APTA | Passenger Transport
February 1, 2010

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A Conversation with FRA Administrator Szabo

Note: The editors of Passenger Transport interviewed Administrator Joseph C. Szabo of the Federal Railroad Administration last week. What follows are his thoughtful and candid responses.

Q. What would you say are the top goals of the high-speed rail program?

A. Our goals are to: transform the nation’s transportation landscape by creating an interconnected network of high-speed intercity passenger corridors of 100-600 miles in length. It’s about finding the sweet spot of investment that achieves trip times that are competitive with air and auto. This will undoubtedly improve the quality of life in local communities by providing an affordable, sustainable, and energy-efficient transportation option. To be sure, this will be a long-term effort. Our end goal is to supplement our existing highway and aviation systems in order to relieve congestion caused by our nation’s ever-increasing mobility demands.

Q. Implementing a series of high-speed rail corridors in the United States will clearly have an impact on the economy in general, on jobs in particular, and on train riders. Could you provide a few specifics on the precise impact you think high-speed rail will have? Can the growth in high-speed rail and the jobs it will generate also be part of America’s long-term economic transformation?

A. The program endeavors to offer real transportation alternatives to air travel as well as cars and buses. They must be competitive in terms of price and on-time performance.

Along the way, we expect many jobs will be created that help reinvigorate the economy in places that have been hit hard for some time now. American businesses across numerous sectors will benefit from this effort, including energy, manufacturing, information technology, hospitality, and tourism, to name a few. Long-term partnerships are at the heart of this transformative program, including opportunities for foreign companies to help create good jobs in America through the design, engineering, construction, and operation of the advanced train systems of the future. Recently, more than 30 manufacturers pledged to create jobs here in the U.S. if they are picked by states to help them construct and run these new high-speed rail corridors and services. We expect that expansion and improvement of the nation’s passenger rail system will create jobs and help the American economy recover while simultaneously modernizing our nation’s infrastructure. It can be done.

Q. What kind of outreach efforts did you engage in with the states, both before and during the application process?

A. We have been engaging with the states throughout the entire process. Before the Interim Guidance detailing the program was developed, we informed the states about the president’s goals contained in our Strategic Plan—A Vision for High-Speed Rail in America; and we held seven workshops to seek input from key stakeholders. We also conducted a series of conference calls to inform the states of our expectations during the application process and established a pre-application process, allowing us to work with the various state departments of transportation to make sure that folks understood what we were looking for in the applications.

Q. Could you briefly discuss the National Rail Plan?

A. The Preliminary National Rail Plan lays the initial groundwork for developing policies to improve the U.S. transportation system by addressing the rail needs of the nation, both for passengers and freight. This is the first time that FRA or DOT has created a document that outlines our long-term goals and objectives for the greater inclusion of rail in the national transportation system. We will continue to reach out to stakeholders and seek their input on the plan.

Q. What kind of impact will the plan have on the implementation of high-speed rail development in America?

A. Since the National Rail Plan also requires the creation of state rail plans, states now have an opportunity and the authority to make passenger rail a significant part of their plans. States that receive [American] Recovery [and Reinvestment] Act funding will certainly include selected projects or programs as a major part in the implementation of their State Rail Plans.

Q. APTA, in conjunction with FRA, is hosting three high-speed rail practicums and inviting experts from around the world to participate. How important is it for the U.S. to focus on the issues/challenges/problems they have already addressed?

A. We will certainly be drawing upon the experiences of other countries in developing high-speed rail as we lay the groundwork for our own system. Both [Transportation] Secretary [Ray] LaHood and I have traveled abroad to learn about others’ systems. We want to learn from their successes as well as mistakes.

We are funding a number of different high-speed rail projects throughout the country in an attempt to lay a solid foundation for a long-term comprehensive passenger rail program. This integrated, nationwide system will take decades to build, just like in Europe and Asia.

Q. Livability and sustainability are important issues of the Obama administration. Connecting local transit systems at each end of a high-speed rail line are important elements of these sustainability goals. How does the implementation of high-speed rail fit into the connectivity issue?

A. Anticipating future growth in demand for transportation requires that we design a system that promotes livability. Part of sustainability is connecting regions by leveraging the strengths of individual communities.

Q. APTA has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with AASHTO and the States for Passenger Rail Coalition. FRA and APTA have always worked together with commuter rail—do you see a similar partnership with high-speed rail?

A. APTA has and will continue to play an important role in all matters affecting rail safety and development. We were pleased to hear of the MOU and the promise it holds of keeping everyone informed of ongoing efforts for high-speed intercity rail in America.

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