The Federal Railroad Administration is aiming to pick up the pace in dispersing to states more of its initial $8-billion round of high-speed-rail funds. At the same time, FRA plans to move quickly to select winners of another $2.3-billion batch of rail money.

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo told reporters on Aug. 20 that, for round one, his agency so far has obligated about $585 million for 13 projects. He says the grant agreements “are very near completion” for seven additional projects totaling $209 million. Another seven projects, valued at $120 million, are waiting in the wings.

All that still leave more than $7 billion that has yet to be turned into approved grant agreements from round one. These funds come from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which requires FRA to obligate all $8 billion by Sept. 30, 2012. “We’re ahead of our goal at this point,” Szabo says, noting FRA also is accelerating the grant-agreement push. “We’re very, very comfortable … that we can beat that deadline,” he adds.

A second big rail funding round is right ahead. FRA reported on Aug. 16 that 25 states requested more than $8.5 billion for the roughly $2.3 billion it has to parcel out. Awards will be in two categories: for rail corridors, 10 states filed 20 applications totaling $7.8 billion for the $2.1 billion available; for specific rail projects, 18 states submitted 57 applications worth $700 million for the $245 million available. Szabo says FRA is aiming to announce the winners by Sept. 30.

Furthermore, FRA plans to pick recipients this fall for $115 million in planning, design and construction funds.

Top 10 Round-2 Requests
New Jersey
North Carolina
New York
Source: Federal Railroad Administrat ion

The odds of snaring some of the $2.3 billion are long but less daunting than in round one, when FRA was bombarded with $57 billion in applications for the $8 billion available. Industry officials say one factor holding down the second-round requests is that states must contribute at least 20% of a project’s cost, a major obstacle for states battling fiscal problems.

The initial ARRA-funded rail round had no local match requirement, though some winning states did put up their own funds. Peter Gertler, HNTB senior vice president and high-speed-rail services chairman, says, “The first round was pretty much all free money—100% federal money—which was an anomaly.” However, it did prompt states to apply, he says. David Carol, Parsons Brinckerhoff market leader for high-speed rail, says, “I think in today’s budget environment, a number of states have tempered what they can request because of that 20% state match.”

Still, given states’ financial squeeze and round two’s smaller size, Carol and Gertler view the volume of requests as a sign of strong high-speed-rail demand.

Szabo sees the program as being in its early days. He says, “We understand that this is just the down payment of what’s going to be a decades-long build-out.”