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[IMAGE]HSR.jpg[/IMAGE]To say that there is explosive interest in high-speed rail is near the heights of understatement. More than 250 applications for high-speed rail planning grants were submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) since the program was launched this past summer. And California, despite its huge fiscal troubles, is well on its way to have the first truly world-class high-speed network in the U.S., the plans for which had been in development well before President Barack Obama even entered politics.
Both federal and state programs have taken more than a few pages from other countries' high-speed playbooks.
California: American model?
In late 2005, before it really had its own fleshed-out policy, the FRA approved the Golden State's program-level environmental report, the first ever for a high-speed rail project. The same year, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) prepared and released its system implementation plan for building the high-speed train system in California, as well as a business plan for building and operating the service. It provided a multi-year schedule for all necessary activities in the project and also included a financing plan, identifying annual expenditures without committing to any sources of funding (though it was determined that state budget appropriations were a legitimate source). The business plan envisions roughly one-third of the estimated $40 billion budget coming from federal government sources, one-third from state funds and the remainder from private investors over a 20-year period. The first phase of the project, from Anaheim to San Francisco, is estimated to have a construction cost of $33 billion to $34 billion in 2008 dollars.
The next major milestones in the progress of Golden State high-speed rail, believed to be the largest infrastructure project in the state's history and possibly the largest in the country, are completion of the regional concept designs and environmental assessments. To manage that work, the CHSRA and Parsons Brinckerhoff, as its program manager, has divided the program into 10 regional sections and selected eight regional consultant teams, with several regional segments managed by the same team. From north to south the segments are: San Francisco to San Jose (HNTB Corporation); Altamont Corridor (AECOM); San Jose to Merced (Parsons Transportation Group); Merced to Sacramento and Merced to Fresno segments (AECOM Transportation); Fresno to Bakersfield (joint venture of Hatch Mott MacDonald, URS Corp. and ARUP with URS as lead); Bakersfield to Palmdale (same joint venture with URS as lead); Palmdale to Los Angeles (same joint venture with Hatch as lead); Los Angeles to Orange County (STV Inc.); and Los Angeles to San Diego (HNTB).
The function of each regional consultant is to provide the planning, environmental and engineering. The program manager's team reviews and confirms the work of the regional consulting teams to ensure consistency with established common standards. Once the state and regulatory authorities approve the design and environmental documents, the program management team will initiate procurement of design-build contracting teams that will finalize the design and construct the civil segments and systems, such as train control and traction power. Once the final design is under way, the program manager will begin the process of selecting an operator that could provide its own trains or operate those purchased in another contract, and will take the system into commissioning and start-up.
The first of these segments, between the Bay Area to the Central Valley, cleared a major hurdle this past fall, when the CHSRA formally approved the preferred alignment on this segment for the draft and final environmental documents to be filed with both state and federal authorities. It is expected that both the state Notice of Determination and federal environmental Record of Decision could be reached on this section by spring 2010.
In November 2008, the state's voters approved a $10 billion state bond issue. Federal and state safety regulators also gave a major boost last year when they approved, in principle, the CHSRA's planned process for seeking system regulatory approval, which was significant because at 220 mph California's system will be the fastest train service ever operated in America. Rights-of-way preservation has also begun.
In addition, this phase will involve the industry and regulators to develop a technical approach that takes advantage of international experience while adapting it to U.S. operating conditions and regulations. Regional transit authorities and freight operators must also be involved where there will be shared use of corridors. All this must culminate in state and federal regulatory approval before the project can proceed to construction.
Essential to the success of this phase is the support of political and civic leaders, and thus far the record has been encouraging. For the past nine years, the project had two governors who initially opposed it, then became supporters upon further investigation and involvement. Similarly, lukewarm legislative support for high-speed rail in California has steadily improved during the past decade; today, there is the broadest support for the project ever.
Feds mirror California
The plan in California broadly echoes the Obama Administration's vision announced last spring to build a network of high-speed rail lines across the U.S. As noted earlier, the administration's investment in high-speed and intercity passenger rail dwarfs that of any previous expenditure by several factors.
The first part of the new policy is the new commitment of spending never before seen in the U.S. on the mode. Eight billion dollars was included at White House insistence in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed just weeks after Obama's inauguration. On top of that amount, the administration proposed another $5 billion over the next five years, the first billion of it for the coming fiscal year beginning this October.
The second part of the program is its ambitious goal: to "transform the nation's transportation system" by rebuilding existing intercity rail lines, initially, then investing in new world-class high-speed services in "100-mile to 600-mile corridors." The administration's models are the interstate highways and U.S. aviation system developed in the past century. Like the California high-speed project, cornerstones of the federal policy are a program of grants to states (and regional compacts) that meet minimum criteria.
The third and final leg of the fed's policy comprise the guidelines and standards for this federal assistance in the form of a strategic rail plan publicized less than two months after the stimulus bill was signed by Obama. Guidelines for potential recipients of the money have been issued, and first round grant awards are expected to be announced before the end of September, up to three years ahead of the schedule required by the law passed in February.
The first round of applications will focus on projects that can be completed quickly and, thus, can yield measurable job creation and other economic and environmental benefits. The next "track" will fund proposals for comprehensive high-speed programs like California's or for corridors or sections of corridors. Other funds will be provided for planning. FRA had identified ten major corridors previously, and these are likely to be given priority for funding. In addition to California's network, they include corridors/networks in the Pacific Northwest; Texas and the Southern Plains cities; the Gulf Coast; a large Chicago-based Midwest network; a Florida Corridor; another Southeast Corridor; a Keystone Corridor that includes Philadelphia, New York, and Pittsburgh; the Empire Corridor, which connects New York City with Albany and Buffalo; and a New England Corridor connecting Boston with Montreal. The FRA is also interested in improving the nation's only existing high-speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor with this program.