July 2009

Aiming to be the 'next rail president'

by Cliff Henke

In several important policy announcements and speeches, President Obama's new administration is carving out the most ambitious rail agenda since that of "that other" president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. On high-speed rail, transit spending and the linkages between urban development and transportation, Obama clearly wants to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes, becoming the "next rail president."

Bold rail agenda revealed

First, take his commitment to a nationwide intermodal and high-speed rail system. In his insistence on record investments in the stimulus legislation and the new policy guidance that goes with it, President Obama has presented the "most ambitious U.S. transportation infrastructure program since the 1950s, when President Eisenhower initiated development of the interstate highway system," argues Gil Carmichael, chairman of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. A former Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) administrator and former chairman of the Amtrak Reform Council, Carmichael is clearly happy; he has been pushing for an "Interstate II," a more rail-oriented intermodal transportation network that emphasizes a generation leap forward for both freight and passengers. "This is the first time an intermodal strategy with a strong emphasis on both freight and passenger rail transportation has been proposed by the federal government," he points out. He believes that these investments could create three times more freight-rail capacity than currently, eventually forming a truly nationwide high-speed passenger-rail network connecting hundreds of city pairs.

Obama is also continuing the record levels of federal investment in rapid transit, adding what will amount to be an additional year's worth of investment in the stimulus bill, while continuing the record increases in his 2010 budget proposals. Moreover, the FTA's just-announced  revisions to the New Starts evaluation process de-emphasizes the heavy focus on ridership in the previous administration, which should give streetcars and light rail projects a significantly greater chance in the federal project pipeline.

Specifically, FTA proposes that the project justification rating of a project seeking New Starts funding be equally based on the ratings for all but two of the criteria mentioned in the last federal transportation law: mobility improvements; cost effectiveness; economic development effects; and public transportation supportive land use policies and future patterns. The ratings of the last two criteria mentioned in the law, environmental benefits and operating efficiencies, would be considered at half each of the weight of the others.

For projects seeking Small Starts funding, the overall project justification rating would be equally based on the ratings of three criteria: cost effectiveness, economic development effects and public transportation supportive land use policies.

When examined with other policy announcements, however, the Obama administration favors carrots, but steers clear of sticks. Measures to discourage car use, such as higher gas taxes or vehicle mileage taxes, have been rejected for the foreseeable future. Thus how Obama will pay for this encouraging vision is still unclear.

 


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