April 2010

Will U.S. High-Speed Rail Systems Finally Ride Off Into the Sunset?

by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Certainly, it would appear that now is the time for the U.S. to implement a high-speed rail system, which would not only take transportation in the nation to the next level, but enable the country to remain on par with the already flourishing systems in Europe and Asia. It may also come down to necessity.

"When we look at what the demographers are projecting in terms of growth, we're going to have at least 100, maybe 130 million people between now and 2050," says Albrecht (Al) P. Engel, PE, vice president and U.S. high-speed rail director, transportation practice, for AECOM. "One thing that people don't seem to emphasize enough is, if we're going to maintain economic growth, economic vitality, you've got to maintain the kind of mobility we have today. That means building new capacity, and high-speed rail is the sustainable and cost-efficient way to do that when compared to the alternatives."

In areas such as California, the need is obvious, explains David Carol, rail market leader at Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB).

"What's driving California's high-speed project is the fact that in the next 25 years, they will add the entire state of Florida in population - a projected growth of about 15 million," he says.

With this population growth, high-speed rail is expected to play a major role in creating a more efficient intermodal transportation system in the U.S., where passengers can travel from one destination to the next using a variety of modes. One fact many proponents of high-speed rail spend time stressing is high-speed rail is not the "magic bullet" but, instead, a part of the solution.

"Rather than stress what high-speed rail is, or is not, our goal is to reduce trip times from point A to point B," says Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo. "Ultimately, ensuring a competitive trip time that is superior to air or auto in a particular market is the goal."

Footing the bill

The $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds awarded to 13 projects in January will impact about 31 states and is only the beginning of a new transportation vision by this administration. With those funds only serving as a down payment for that vision, and the addition of $2.5 billion for 2010 and $1 billion for 2011, where are the rest of the funds going to come from?

"Whether it's sending your kids to college or whatever, you're not going to get a free ride. You have to do some of your own work and come up with some of your own money and that's just a fundamental approach - if you don't pay anything for it you won't appreciate it," says Engel. "The states, really, should come up with some portion, but the big question is what the ratio should be."

Shortly after the federal funding was awarded, critics, including an Associated Press article, wondered openly how states in the throes of budget shortfalls will be able, exactly, to foot their part of bill, especially Florida and California.

However, in a roundtable interview in February during the "International Practicum on Implementing High-Speed Rail in the United States," co-sponsored by the American Public Transportation Association and the International Union of Railways, Szabo dispelled that notion, explaining that one major criteria for receiving the $8 billion in funds was a detailed explanation of how those applying intended to pay for the rest of the system. Therefore, those without a feasible plan were not awarded money. He also discussed the fed's investment of $3.5 billion over the next two fiscal years.

With the economic downturn still having an impact on the nation and the federal government still trying to find a way to pay for the transportation authorization bill, the question on many minds is, simply, what if the states can't pay?

"The goal will be to make these systems as efficient as possible and that's why California and Florida are both looking to the private sector to play a significant role," says Carol. "To the extent that money is required, I think the states that are moving forward are well aware of that and have planned accordingly." 

As far as the continued federal investment outside of the $11.5 billion in new money between 2009 and 2011, nobody knows for sure exactly how much funding will continue to be doled out. The draft authorization bill that Congressman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, released last year included $50 million for high-speed rail, but until an authorization bill is passed nobody is certain what that number will eventually be. One thing is clear, though - the fight for funds in that authorization bill will be tough.

 "Everybody involved in transportation infrastructure - whether it's highways, transit, rail or bike paths - shares the concern that the pie is getting smaller because the gas tax is not increasing, while fuel efficiency is also increasing," says Carol. "So, there is concern that somehow the pie will need to get bigger to address America's infrastructure needs, and we'll have to leave it up to Congress to figure out how that happens for high-speed rail."

One thing that will eventually help drive high-speed rail investment as well as excitement around the nation, according to Szabo, is finding a "sweet spot."

"We need to find the sweet spot of investment that achieves trip times that are reliable in being competitive or superior to the time it takes to get somewhere by car or plane. In many cases, it may take 200 mph to be effective, but in others 110 or 125 mph may provide trip times that allow rail to dominate," he says. "Since the level of investment increases exponentially as top end speed goes up, you need to find the point where the ridership curve and investment curve intersect. If a $1 billion investment gets you 90 percent of the market, why spend $10 billion to achieve 91 percent of the market?"

Szabo points to several areas where this may be accomplished in a short amount of time, including Chicago's CREATE (Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency) program.

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