The Dept. of Transportation has released a blueprint aimed at developing high-speed rail in 100- to 600-mile-long corridors around the country. The plan, released April 16, does not say which projects will be funded, but it does include a map of high-speed rail corridors that could qualify for federal aid. The program could provide significant design and construction opportunities. DOT's Federal Railroad Administration will start awarding the first round of grants by late summer.

The plan, mandated by the recently enacted economic-stimulus legislation, proposes a three-pronged approach:

  • "Ready to go" projects to be funded by federal grants

  • Corridor programs that would use federal-nonfederal agreements to develop segments or phases of corridor programs, which have planning completed and lists of projects to be carried out.

  • Planning activity for corridor programs and projects, through federal-nonfederal agreements

  • High-speed rail has quickly moved up the priority list in federal transportation policy. The stimulus measure, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, appropriates $8 billion for the program, with the funds to be available through Sept. 30, 2012. President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget outline released  Feb. 26, proposes an additional $1 billion annually for five years for high-speed rail. In addition, major rail legislation, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, was enacted last year, which authorizes $1.5 billion for high-speed rail projects.

    Much of the public focus will be on 10 corridors that DOT secretaries have designated since 1991 (map).

    Officials from states containing those corridors already are making a pitch to be selected. California Gov.Arnold Schwarzenegger [R] released a statement noting approval last November by his state's voters of a nearly $10-billion high-speed rail bond, and announced the appointment of four members of a rail "peer review committee."

    Midwest officials also want to be in the game. Governors of five states in the region wrote to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on April 10 to promote three corridors: Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis/St.Paul-Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-St. Louis; and Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac.

    The federal program covers three tiers of high-speed service: New service at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour; "emerging and regional" service, between 90 and 150 mph on dedicated or shared track; and upgrades to existing service, running from 79 to 90 mph.

    The 27-page plan will be followed by detailed program guidance, due by June 17, and then by a National Rail Plan,mandated by last year's passenger-rail statute.