High-Speed Rail Reaches a Crossroads

Posted on June 26, 2013 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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A rendering of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s San Jose, Calif. project.
A rendering of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s San Jose, Calif. project.
President Barack Obama’s record investment through both the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program provided a shot in the arm for the nation’s high-speed rail network to begin taking shape. Since then, however, the political climate on Capitol Hill has cast a dark cloud over the program, making it difficult to see how its once bright future will finally be realized.

As the Administration and supporters of the HSIPR program regroup to figure out what’s next after the initial investments, progress continues to be made on projects throughout the nation, including on the country’s one true high-speed rail project in California.

More than four years in, how successful has the program been? How important is high-speed rail to the nation’s future and what’s next?

Current state
Obama’s HSIPR plan is often cited as the grandest transportation program since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. With much excitement and fanfare, the initial award of more than $10.1 billion in the high-speed rail program began moving projects forward; however, as many of those projects have reached completion or moved to the next step where more funds are necessary, it is unclear how much success will be found securing those funds at the federal level.

“As we engage with elected officials on the state level, few new ideas have generated as much interest and enthusiasm as America’s high-speed passenger rail program,” says Robert Puentes, sr. fellow/director, metropolitan infrastructure initiative, for Brookings Institution. “These are the kind of game changing, market-shaping investments in the next economy that we have long deferred. Yet, while the high-speed rail effort is a national program, it is important to note that this is not representative of the late 20th century federalism model in transportation with the federal government providing resources that rain down unencumbered to the state and metropolitan level. Rather, what we’re seeing is a new 21st century model that challenges our nation’s state and metropolitan leaders to develop deep and innovative approaches to solve the most pressing transportation problems. Indeed, unlike the earlier high-speed rail grants, the latest round of funding requires a state/local match.”

Meanwhile, Art Guzzetti, VP, policy, at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) sees the slowdown in the program as inevitable.

“There was a big buzz at first, but then we got down to brass tacks,” he says “You have to understand, the nation went from a standing start to a full sprint on this program in a snap; it was really inevitable that it would slow down.”

While many, including the Administration itself, viewed the HSIPR program as a jobs initiative as much as a vision for transportation’s future, the mainstream negativity the program has experienced seems to be both surprising and a sign of the times as intense scrutiny of government plagues major decisions to invest in programs or make cuts in spending. That is not to mention the political wrangling on Capitol Hill.
Still, the money invested into projects through ARRA and the HSIPR program continues to make progress.

“There are five regions that are definitely moving ahead; the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the Southeast through Virginia and North Carolina, the Chicago Hub in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and California,” says Guzzetti. “There is progress being made in all those areas to the degree that they are going to have higher performing rail in those regions, so we are definitely seeing some success.”

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