The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has released interim guidelines for its much-awaited High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Planning Grants program, which includes $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act aid and other federal high-speed and intercity rail funds. States now must hustle to apply for the money, because FRA has set a July 10 deadline for filing "pre-application" forms.

The first round of the rail grants will be awarded by mid-September, based on merit. In its guidance document, released June 17, FRA says projects will be evaluated and rated according to: transportation benefits, economic recovery, other public benefits, project-management approach, sustainability of benefits, and timeliness of project completion. National priorities and environmental impact will also be considered.

Other requirements may include selection of a proposed operator, and enhancing rail safety through positive train control systems. Grant recipients that use rights-of-way owned by railroads must establish a written agreement with that railroad on use and ownership. Grant recipients must comply with ARRA's Buy-American provisions for use of steel, iron and manufactured goods, unless the FRA elects to waive this requirement.

Engineering firms are ready to dive in to help states secure grant money. “Now that we believe there is money out there, we have to ask, can we bring it on home?” says Rick Peltz, senior consultant at Gannett Fleming Inc. and former deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation.

Peltz adds few state DOTs "know how to do passenger rail--most are focused on highways--so we’ll be working with states on application preparation, design, planning and implementation.”

FRA has laid out four “tracks” for the rail grant program. Track 1 projects, are defined as intercity passenger rail projects “ready to go” with completed preliminary engineering and environmental documentation, to be completed in two years.

Track 2 “programs” are high speed and intercity passenger rail corridor services with phased implementation. Track 3 is “planning,” including activities that require a 50% non-federal match. Track 4 “FY 2009 Appropriations Projects,” are intercity rail projects with a minimum 50% non-federal match, to be completed in five years.

Track 1 and 2 projects may be awarded up to $8 billion in total ARRA funds. Track 3 may be awarded up to $9.5 million and Track 4 at least $82.3 million of fiscal year 2008-2009 capital grants to states. Track 1 grants will fund final design and construction. Under Track 2, funds will be committed through letters of intent and milestone deadline agreements. Tracks 1 and 2 will receive up to 100% federal funds, but applicants must absorb cost overruns beyond the awarded amount, says FRA.

Only U.S. states (including groups of states under Tracks 1 and 2), are permitted to file grant requests for their qualifying railroad programs. Completed applications are due by August 24, for Track 1, 3 and 4, and by October 2 for Track 2. Grant money covers “high-speed rail” trains, which operate at 110 to 150 miles per hour over 100-mile-to-600-mile-long segments, and “intercity” rail trains, which operate at 79-90 mph over more than 100 miles of track.