The $8 billion the U.S. Dept. of Transportation awarded in January for high-speed rail was a dramatic move, but it is far from a one-shot deal. DOT now is preparing to seek proposals for a new batch of rail grants, totaling more than $2.3 billion. If the first round, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is any indicator, the next competition will attract a throng of applicants.

Stiff competition is expected for shares of $2.3 billion in non-stimulus DOT grants.
Photo: California High sped Rail Authority
Stiff competition is expected for shares of $2.3 billion in non-stimulus DOT grants.

Karen Rae, deputy chief of DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration, says, “It’s a very new game. I think the one thing we know is the pent-up demand was huge.” Indeed, the ARRA round drew high-speed rail (HSR) proposals totaling $57 billion for the $8 billion available.

The next round will start with a “notice of funding availability,” which Rae says will be issued probably in late spring. Rae says slightly more than $2.1 billion will go for corridor projects and $245 million for specific rail projects. The ARRA money was 100% federal funds. But the new round will adhere to requirements in the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, including a 20% non-federal matching share.

While gearing up for the new wave of applications, FRA on April 1 published a funding-availability notice for $115 million for HSR planning, design and construction. Rae says, “We heard from many, many states that this is brand-new. They needed money for planning to get everything up to speed.” Those funds are from 2009 and 2010 appropriations and carry a state matching requirement.

FRA also is starting to cut checks to states that won the $8 billion in ARRA aid. Rae hopes to deliver those projects “in half the time you could get any other major projects out.” Some of the money will go to individual, ready-to-go projects and some for “early work” on corridors, she adds.

DOT’s high-speed-rail to-do list:
Evaluate applications, award $115 million in planning, design, construction funds. Notice of availability published April 1. Applications due May 19.
Start to distribute the $8 billion in ARRA rail funds awarded to states. Ongoing.
Prepare to launch competition for new, $2.3-billion-plus round of rail grants. Issue notice of funding availability in late spring.
Sources: Federal Railroad Admin. Federal Register

“The momentum seems to be building,” says Al Engel, AECOM vice president and U.S. high-speed-rail director. Industry surely welcomes all the funding approved so far. But, Engel adds, “Much more money has to come to the table to make this a real business.”

In looking at HSR, Kevin J. McMahon, group vice president for North America infrastructure at Jacobs, Pasadena, Calif., is reminded of the Interstate highway plan’s launch in the 1950s. He sees high-speed rail as “this century’s version of the Eisenhower program.”

McMahon adds, “It seems like there is a resolve to get this thing done, but it’s going to take a plan for the next 20, 25 years. This is not a five-year construction opportunity, and then it’s done.”