March 15, 2010
Job opportunities in this issue's classifieds include a public transit agency president/CEO and executive director of a national program!
National Rail Plan: A Top 10 Item for Authorization
BY AL ENGEL, P.E., Vice President and National Director, High-Speed Rail, AECOM, Philadelphia, PA, and Business Member Director, APTA Board of Directors
Imagine adding 100 million or more people to the U.S. population and having them compete for access to our already congested highway, rail, and aviation systems. You thought you already had a tough commute! And what about their consumption of non-renewable resources and the associated impacts on the environment?
Demographers predict that the U.S. population will expand beyond 400 million between now and 2050. In his recently published book, The Next Hundred Million, Joel Kotkin—a distinguished presidential fellow at Chapman University in Orange, CA—made a compelling argument on how the younger U.S. population, our higher birth rates, and immigration trends compared to Europe, Japan, and Russia support such projections. He went on to make the case that this expansion will lead to a bountiful economic resurgence.
Analogously, in his recent essay in the The Wall Street Journal, Kotkin observed: “Of course, this optimistic scenario depends on intelligent and energetic actions by central and local governments.…” While he doesn’t mention it, I would assume he included adequate investment in our transportation infrastructure to provide the required mobility for these additional folks.
The Report of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission (mandated by SAFETEA-LU) issued Jan. 15, 2008, makes an unequivocal recommendation: “The U.S. now has incredible economic potential and significant transportation needs. We need to invest at least $225 billion annually from all sources for the next 50 years....” The report goes on to indicate that the U.S. is spending only about 40 percent of this amount and proposes 10 federal surface transportation programs, with intercity passenger rail included among them.
The commission envisioned “an intercity passenger rail network that provides competitive, reliable, and frequent passenger service, comparable to world-class systems in other countries.”
Making a Commitment
The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 took a policy step forward in establishing a new capital grants program to begin to address the commission’s recommendation. More recently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided $8 billion to jump start the high-speed and intercity passenger rail program. On Jan. 28 of this year, President Barack Obama announced the ARRA high-speed rail project selections to launch the U.S. High Speed Rail program—a truly historic moment for this country.
But, as the president himself has noted on numerous occasions, this is only a down payment. So what are we to read into that comment or commitment?
From the 21st-century definition of down payment, this comment could suggest a federal program of virtually any scale between now and 2050. The commission report recommended a total capital program between now and 2050 of $357 billion, or about $9 billion per year. This may sound good; yet, were the U.S. to invest at the same rate as the rest of the world as percent of GDP, the annual investment would work out to about $60 billion, or less than a third of the total annual transportation investment recommended by the commission.
Whatever capital cost is agreed upon in the end, we’re talking a major investment of the people’s tax dollar. The people surely would insist that such a program is economically vibrant, well considered, and visionary.
To embark on such a major program, a fairly detailed plan with a proposed dedicated source of funding is critical. The Congress foresaw such a need and called for a national rail plan to be delivered by DOT this September. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is charged with this task and has been very actively working to produce a draft by the end of June. FRA has encouraged a collaborative process among public- and private-sector stakeholders.
Building on the Past
With high-speed rail already well established in parts of Europe and Asia, we are fortunate to be able to build upon the lessons learned and to work with the experienced individuals who made these networks a reality to arrive at an optimal plan. APTA’s highly successful high-speed rail practicums in early February, produced in collaboration with the International Union of Railways (UIC), is just one example of doing that. Ignacio Barron de Angoiti, director of the passenger department at UIC, served as the leader of the practicum; prior to joining the organization, he was part of the team that created Spain’s highly successful Spanish high-speed rail network, branded as the AVE system.
The Spanish system is an example that can provide many useful lessons for the way we proceed with high-speed rail in America—a fact that can be recognized by the fact that DOT and FRA officials have given it close scrutiny.
A country once considered somewhat culturally disengaged, Spain is now much more interconnected with Europe after the launch of its high-speed rail program in 1986. “The country is becoming far more intertwined,” said José María Ureña, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Castilla-La Mancha. “In a country that tends to separate out somewhat, that can only be a good thing.”
Spanish cities and towns that were once overlooked are now becoming destinations and vibrant places to live. New economic markets are being established and linked within and across regions. A new breed of daily commuters began evolving in areas once forgotten. One could justifiably assume that similar growth could ideally take place in the many disconnected regions across America with a vibrant intercity passenger rail network incorporating high-speed rail in high-density corridors.
To facilitate industry feedback on the National Rail Plan, FRA has and will conduct further listening or feedback sessions to get the best ideas from the diversity of stakeholders.
The APTA Business Member Board of Governors created a special feedback workshop at its annual retreat in January. Representing the FRA were Deputy Administrator Karen Rae (via phone) and Ron Hynes, director of the Office of Policy. Also on the panel were Michael J. Scanlon, APTA first vice chair and general manager of the San Mateo County Transit District and Caltrain commuter rail, both in San Carlos, CA, and Steven Gardner, vice president, policy and development for Amtrak.
It was a very animated session and, through group discussion and breakout sessions, the group reached consensus that a clear statement of need and a near-term showcase project are needed. The group identified the three top issues to be addressed in the plan as:
* System definition of the national routes, service levels, operating strategy, standards, phasing of construction, capital cost estimate, operating expense, cashflow, and project delivery;
* Finance planning including projected federal source(s) of funding, local contribution, public-private partnership expectations, needed legislation, and regulation; and
* Streamlining of the environmental and regulatory process and removal of legal barriers to implementation.
At the end of the session, the panelists received a table of contents of what the participants thought should be included in the National Rail Plan. APTA staff will furnish this document to any member who requests it.
A Sustainable Challenge
High-speed rail represents a sustainable approach for meeting and dramatically addressing America’s mobility challenges, both by adding new transportation capacity and through substantial reductions in intercity travel times. The larger capacity will so desperately be needed to achieve our full economic potential with a nation of 400 million people by 2050.
We have a chance to bring about a new, fourth generation of positive public transportation development. Through collaboration and cooperation among all the transit modal interests and other stakeholders, we have a chance to build on the preceding heavy rail, light rail, and commuter rail programs and work toward a balanced and fully integrated national transportation system that includes high-speed rail.
Through the guidance and vision bestowed by a comprehensive National Rail Plan, the U.S. can begin to realize the high-speed rail vision President Obama has so eloquently laid out for us. We must do our part in communicating our expectations of this unprecedented opportunity.