High-speed rail advocates celebrated the Jan. 28 award of grants from the $8-billion pot that is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but officials must now figure out how to leverage the seed money into successful long-term programs. California and Florida, the anticipated big winners at $2.25 billion and $1.25 billion, respectively, will now ponder design-build and public-private partnerships along with other sources of funding.

The U.S. Dept. of Transportation was flooded with applications, receiving $57 billion in proposals. That includes $50 billion in rail-corridor proposals submitted by 24 states and $7 billion from 34 states for specific projects.

Most of the funds went to long-term programs that can now proceed with environmental reviews and preliminary engineering. But some projects specifically were “shovel-ready” notes David J. Carol, market leader of high-speed rail for Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City. “Those will be going to design-build or final design fairly quickly under the terms of the legislation, in which they need to be completed in two years. A year out you’ll see some heavy-duty construction.”

The Tampa-Orlando line could be the first to debut, since the Florida Dept. of Transportation had already set aside room in the median of Interstate 4. The right-of-way procurements are almost complete. But additional funding is still a concern.

“We are very excited by what the Federal Railroad Administration is awarding us, but we will have to look at this and figure out a plan to facilitate the system,” says Nazih Haddad, FDOT manager for passenger rail development. “We don’t have answers about the rest of the funding at this time. We will look at the situation and decide. It’s important to note that the FRA is providing dollars only as a down payment. There may be additional funding at a later date.” 

Robert G. Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association in Tallahassee, adds that he doesn't see how the state will be able to come up with the remaining $1.25 billion.

“Quite honestly, there isn’t $1.25 billion of transportation money to commit over the next 5 years to high-speed rail, even if  (FDOT)  wanted to, unless they totally shut down the highway progra m," he says. "We’re in a real dilemma. " 

Rick Chesser, regional director for Reynolds Smith & Hills,  adds that the construction and consultant community is in a “wait-and-see mode” to see how the projects come forward. “The DOT held an industry forum in December talking about the Tampa-Orlando leg, what they call the civil works to prepare the track bed to accept the track and electrification,” he says. “And then the second part would be to bring in track electrification, the equipment and then to operate and maintain the system.”

International firms boasting previous high-speed rail experience are eager to get on board with American partners. “It comes at the right time, and I think we have the elements in place to be one of the serious competitors for this work, in whatever fashion it comes out,” says Lauro Bravar, chief operating officer for Spain’s OHL USA. However, Bravar acknowledges that future financing could prove challenging.  “These are very expensive structures to build, maintain and operate. You don’t want to put too much burden on the fares, so the general public can use them as a reasonable price. Usually there is reasonable aid coming from the government.”