Today President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced the DOT's high speed rail strategic plan. You can find the full details of the plan at the USDOT website.
It's an important announcement and contains some long-awaited policy changes that will help make HSR a reality across the nation. It's not yet clear how this will impact the California HSR project, but the way the funding allocation categories are set up appears to be quite favorable to us here in California.
First, I want to quote from both President Obama and VP Biden - these guys get it when it comes to HSR. It is a sea change from the last 25 years of refusal to speak openly and honestly about our nation's transportation needs.
“My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come,” said President Obama. “A major new high-speed rail line will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve. High-speed rail is long-overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways.”
He nailed it. This quote has it all - energy independence, job creation and long-term economic growth, and relieving congested airports and freeways. Joe Biden's quote is equally as good:
“Today, we see clearly how Recovery Act funds and the Department of Transportation are building the platform for a brighter economic future - they’re creating jobs and making life better for communities everywhere,” said Vice President Biden. “Everyone knows railways are the best way to connect communities to each other, and as a daily rail commuter for over 35 years, this announcement is near and dear to my heart. Investing in a high-speed rail system will lower our dependence on foreign oil and the bill for a tank of gas; loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways; and significantly reduce the damage we do to our planet.”
I don't know who was writing their speeches, but they clearly understand the case for HSR.
That case is made strongly and powerfully in the HSR strategic plan document (PDF, 3MB). It is one of the best arguments for HSR that I've ever seen. This administration is serious about HSR. The plan includes a good overview of the history of rail funding in America, explaining that we have spent over $1 trillion on roads and airports in the last 50 years but have starved rail - even though, as the report makes clear, high speed rail is one of the best methods to move people over distances from 100 to 600 miles:
The report also recognizes the need to update the FRA's regulations to make HSR more of a possibility in this country (this should be music to Rafael's ears):
While most high-speed systems overseas have a good safety record, usually on dedicated track, U.S. railroad safety standards are designed to keep passengers and crew safe in a mixed operating environment with conventional freight equipment, which is much heavier than comparable
foreign equipment. The advent of Positive Train Control (PTC), crash energy management, and other advances provides the United States with an opportunity to revise its safety approach in a manner that accelerates the development of high-speed rail while preserving and improving upon a strong safety regime. This will be a challenge for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) as it seeks to administer its critical safety responsibility and facilitate high-speed rail development. The systems approach required to ensure safety of new HSR corridors will necessitate consideration of additional changes in several regulations, including equipment, system safety, and collision and derailment prevention.
The heart of the document is a three-pronged approach to funding HSR projects. I'll include the full text of the "tracks" below for folks to peruse:
1. Projects. Grants to complete individual projects eligible under Sections 301 (IPR projects) and Sections 302 (congestion projects) described above, for the benefit of existing services. Eligible projects include infrastructure, facilities and equipment. In order to qualify, these projects must: (a) be "ready to go" (i.e., environmental work required by law (National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA) and preliminary engineering (PE) are complete), and (b) demonstrate "independent utility." For projects that meet the independent utility test but have not yet completed NEPA and PE, funding is available to conduct NEPA and PE work to make projects ready to go and, therefore, eligible under a subsequent grant solicitation. For rolling stock proposals, DOT will encourage acquisition of new, standardized, interoperable equipment
that incorporates modern safety features. Under this track, funds would be obligated for successful applications under standard grant agreement terms and conditions, including ARRA oversight and reporting procedures.
2. Corridor programs. Cooperative agreements to develop entire segments or phases of corridor programs eligible under Section 501 (HSR) and Section 301 (IPR), benefiting existing or new services. In order to qualify, these corridor programs must: (a) be based on a corridor plan that establishes service objectives and includes a prioritized list of projects to achieve those objectives; and (b) have completed sufficient corridor/ section/phase programmatic or project environmental (NEPA) documentation and sufficient planning to provide reasonable project cost and benefit estimates. For corridor programs that do not qualify under (a) and (b) above, funding is available to complete this work and make corridor programs eligible for subsequent solicitations. Under this track, funds for selected applications of a corridor program phase and/ or geographic section would be set aside at the outset, and provided at pre-specified milestone approval points. This approach would involve a higher level of Federal oversight and support than under even the
heightened scrutiny inherent in standard ARRA grant agreements.
3. Planning. Cooperative agreements for planning activities (including development of corridor plans and State Rail Plans) eligible for funding under Section 301 of PRIIA, using non-ARRA funds. This third track provides States an opportunity to prepare themselves for any funding remaining in subsequent rounds of ARRA, and/or future year appropriations. It is intended to help create the pipeline for future corridor development needed to build out a national HSR/IPR network.
As I read this, California's project is eligible for all three tracks. Of course, so would many other states. The plan also recognizes distinctions between what they call "HSR express" which is a California-style system that can achieve 150 mph or above; "HSR regional" which can achieve speeds of 110-150 mph; "Emerging HSR" where new corridors of around 90-110 mph are to be built, and "Conventional Rail" which is basically Amtrak outside the NEC. I hope that as the only true HSR express project on the drawing board (the NEC is in a somewhat different category as it already exists) that will give us a big boost, as other states fight over the rest.
So overall I think this is a huge boost for HSR, even though it does leave some things unclear as to how exactly our own project will fare. The DOT will be making the first project funding announcements later this year, for tracks 1 and 3 - track 2 will be announced toward the end of 2009 or in early 2010.
This announcement has gotten a lot of reaction around the blogosphere, but I want to single out for criticism Matthew Yglesias's take on the announcement:
My take on this is that the most promising projects on the merits, from a federal point of view, are probably those that upgrade the existing Northeast Corridor (where we know demand exists) and those that connect to the Northeast Corridor since the existing passenger rail corridor extends the utility of the new link. The Chicago Hub Network and the California Corridor concepts strikes me as very important for the long-term future of their regions, but for it to be useful will take a lot of time and money. I assume that the relevant state-level politicians for the Gulf Coast and South Central Corridors aren’t going to be interested in ponying up the sort of state funds that would make these projects competitively viable, and that may be for the best since I think those corridors may be a bit ill-conceived. It seems strange to build so much track in Texas and not manage to link Houston with Dallas.
This is a pretty flawed way to look at things. What Yglesias proposes is in fact the model Clinton eventually adopted. In 1993 he proposed a broad national HSR plan, but by the late '90s he decided to just focus on upgrading the NEC and rail was left to wither around the country.
Yglesias is wrong to say that we should prioritize the NEC and connections to the NEC. Significant improvements in speed and carrying capacity can be made in the Midwest with a few billion dollars, and the California project need federal cash infusion now to ensure completion by 2018. All of those will revolutionize rail transportation in America to a much bigger scale than upgrades to the NEC. Too much focus on the NEC is one of the primary reasons for the lack of passenger rail upgrades and improvements around the country. It's time we took HSR national.
And with President Obama's plan, that is exactly what will happen. Now, to make sure this all gets funded...
UPDATE: Rafael's comments:
Nothing particularly new here, except that USDOT will be sticking with the 11 already designated corridors (incl. the NEC). Disneyland to Las Vegas, the Texas T-bone and other hopefuls are not mentioned. So far, the President is talking about the $8 billion in the stimulus bill plus a measly $1 billion for each of the next five years. That's enough to get started, but not nearly enough to leave a legacy.
On the plus side, he mentions the need for long-term commitments from states. Presumably, that translates to a preference for those willing to put some serious skin in the game, e.g. California.
California's much more ambitious bullet train network would presumably fall into the second "track" but it's unclear if there will be anything left in the kitty at that point. Still, given the increasing amount of political capital the President is investing in HSR, it seems likely that future bills will increase the total amount available once USDOT has put in place a suitably technocratic process for evaluating grant applications on their merits. Washington being what it is, the notion that political considerations such as swing state status won't matter is probably more pious hope than realistic expectation.
In particular, additional federal funding for planning and development of additional HSR corridors will be sought in the context of the regular surface transportation bills. In plain English, that means rail proponents will have to duke it out with the highway lobby. Fortunately, the principle that transit projects will be eligible for up to 80% federal funding, putting them on par with highways, has already been established. Note that those regular bills would also be the appropriate place to make adjustments to the map of eligible corridors. The current one dates back to 2002.
In addition, FRA will need some additional funding for drawing up rules enabling mixed traffic on rapid rail routes as well as bullet train operations at speeds exceeding 150mph. The various HSR allocations do allow USDOT to retain a small fraction of the total grant volume for its own operations in support of HSR implementation.