Drawing on $8 billion from the federal economic stimulus, the Obama administration has laid out a blueprint for developing high-speed rail in 100- to 600-mile-long corridors around the country. The plan, which the U.S. Dept. of Transportation unveiled April 16, does not say which projects will be

funded. DOT will start awarding the first round of grants for ready-to-go upgrades to existing routes by late summer. A second phase would have a longer-range focus. However, carrying out the plan’s lofty aims will require much more than $8 billion. It is uncertain where that new money will come from.

Image: U.S. Dept. Of Transportation
High-Speed-Rail Corridors Competing For $8 Billion of Federal Stimulus Money

Still, it is clear is high-speed rail has barreled to a top place on the federal transportation priority list. Underlining the plan’s importance, President Barack Obama appeared at DOT headquarters to endorse a program “to transform travel in America with an historic investment in high-speed rail.”

The plan encompasses new service at speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour, “emerging and regional” service between 90 mph and 150 mph on dedicated or shared track and upgrades to existing service running from 79 mph to 90 mph.

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

Obama said an initial round of grants “will focus on projects that can create jobs and benefits in the near-term.” He added, “We are talking about using existing infrastructure to increase speeds on some routes from 70 mph to over 100 mph [by] improving tracks, crossings, signal systems.” For now, DOT is not saying how much of the $8 billion will be awarded in grants for those shorter-term shovel-ready rail-upgrade projects.

Shrinking Distances

According to the President, the next phase will focus on “shrinking distances within our regions.” He said there are “at least 10 major corridors...of 100 to 600 miles in length with the potential for successful high-speed rail systems.”

Jeff Morales, senior vice president with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Sacramento, Calif., says the DOT plan indicates “they really are looking at this not just as a onetime shot of the $8 billion [for] economic recovery but as a sustained program. To me, that is something pretty significant that states and local governments should certainly take note of.”

The administration’s plan “is to transform travel in America with an historic investment in high-speed rail.”

The $8 billion, which is only available through Sept. 30, 2012, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, does not require a state to put up matching money. That is a great attraction.

Much of the competition for high-speed-rail dollars will center on 11 corridors that U.S. DOT secretaries have designated since 1991 (see map). Officials from states along those corridors already are making a pitch to be selected. California, which envisions an 800-mile, $46-billion set of lines, hopes to win 40% to 50% of the $8 billion. In the near-term, the state’s High Speed Rail Authority has identified $3.6 billion of grade separations and support infrastructure that already are designed and ready to start construction by March 2010, says Executive Director Mehdi Morshed.

With a $9.95-billion high-speed-rail bond issue that voters approved last November, “We have already awarded millions of dollars in contracts and will continue with or without federal funds,” Morshed says. But he also notes the federal stimulus funds would accelerate the awarding of the first big rail-construction contracts, including those for two bridge projects, between San Francisco and San Jose and between Los Angeles and Anaheim. Those awards could come as early as the end of the summer.

In Contention

Midwest officials also are 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. States such as Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan have ready-to-go projects that could qualify for the first round of rail stimulus grants, says Rick Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, Chicago. That near-term work could include upgrading existing track, adding passing sidings and new signal systems, he says.

The Midwest also is in the running for the longer-range corridor-funding round, Harnish says. One possible candidate route is Chicago to St. Louis, with a goal of a trip of three and a half to four hours. He says of current train service, “If it’s on time, it’s five and a half.”

In Florida, voters sank high-speed-rail plans in 2004, but advocates hope to revive the idea and tap stimulus money. In an April 1 letter to Florida High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Lee Chira, state DOT Secretary Stephanie C. Kopelousos proposed updating rail environmental documents and pursuing a federal record of decision. But she also noted $9 billion of transportation projects were deferred over two years and said it is “unlikely that new projects can be prioritized and [state] funds committed to this effort.”

Amtrak also could be in the mix. “We anticipate that states and Amtrak, either in combination or separately, will be able to apply for these funds,” says Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black. The stimulus gives Amtrak $1.3 billion for capital improvements, and those funds are committed to specific projects. Black adds, “We do have other projects” that could be eligible for some of the $8 billion.

Fredric Berger, chairman of The Louis Berger Group Inc. in Washington, D.C., was disappointed that DOT’s plan did not actively embrace magnetic-levitation technology, although it does not exclude mag-lev from funding. Berger says mag-lev has energy-efficiency and other advantages over traditional rail. “It is 21st-century, and why shouldn’t we be doing that?” he asks. But Berger says DOT’s program will lead to substantial design, regulatory and other work.

The prospect of new funds has charged up rail planners from coast to coast, but the funds will only take the plans part of the way. “The intent of the $8 billion was never that it would be the end-all and be-all for the development of high-speed rail,” says Peter Gertler, vice president and high-speed-rail practice chairman for design firm HNTB in Oakland, Calif. “More monies down the road will be required for the ultimate implementation,” he adds.

To keep the stimulus momentum going, Obama has proposed an additional $1 billion a year for five years for high-speed rail, starting in fiscal 2010. Even if Congress approves that request, billions more still would be needed to bring all the rail plans to completion.

Peter Ruane, CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, has called for a new user fee dedicated to high-speed rail. HNTB’s Gertler says there is the potential that the next multiyear surface-transportation bill will include “a significant source for more substantive funding” for high-speed rail.