TRANSPORTATION:

High-speed rail effort proceeds with caution

President Obama billed the $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail as the "first step" toward a nationwide system of European-style bullet trains linking the nation's largest cities.

But now his administration must take the second step: figuring out how and where to spend the cash among more than $50 billion worth of proposals from across the country.

It is a tricky endeavor. If Federal Railroad Administration officials pick too many projects, they risk spreading the cash too thin, leaving little tangible evidence to point to when it comes time to ask for the next round of federal investment. Choose only one or two larger projects, and they could alienate needed political allies that hail from states that are overlooked.

Any near-term failures -- either in moving too slowly or picking the wrong projects -- could threaten to derail the larger effort, according to the leader of the FRA's high-speed grant program.

"That would be a disaster for the beginning of this program," FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae said earlier this month at a public transit conference in Orlando, Fla.

Rae stressed that decisions would be merit-based and consider criteria that would maximize public policy benefit, but she also acknowledged a growing political reality that faces Obama in his first year in the White House. "We have to show progress, and we have to show some type of progress soon," she said of the $8 billion in stimulus cash.

While FRA has yet to miss any congressionally mandated deadlines, its grant program is not moving at the speed that Obama had originally promised.

In April, while he was outlining his high-speed plan, Obama said a first batch of stimulus grants would be awarded this summer for smaller planning and shovel-ready projects. But that deadline came and went with no announcements, something FRA -- which has long served mostly as a regulatory agency monitoring safety issues -- said afterward was a result of the unexpected high level of interest in the grant program.

The agency received 45 applications from 24 states for a total of $50 billion in long-term, high-speed rail corridor projects, and another 214 requests from 24 states for a total of $7 billion for the smaller, shovel-ready work.

FRA chief Joseph Szabo told lawmakers last week not to expect any federal funds to be awarded until early 2010 and that the first round will no longer be limited to the smaller projects.

"It was painful to delay because we had given our word," Szabo said at a House hearing. "But in the grander scheme of things, to make sure this is done right and that we look at all of these applications holistically ... a short, three-, four-month delay is minuscule."

The heightened interest is evident not only in the sum of applications, but also from the attendance at recent high-speed rail events across the country. The hearing at which Szabo testified last week was a standing-room-only affair. So, too, were a pair of high-speed rail sessions earlier in the month at the American Public Transportation Association's annual conference in Orlando, at which Rae spoke.

"In the gloom-and-doom days, we couldn't get six people in a room to have a meeting; now we have a meeting, and it's standing-room only," said Frank Busalacchi, the Wisconsin transportation secretary and the chairman of the States for Passenger Rail Coalition.

The bump to high-speed rail's profile comes as little surprise to many in the rail industry, who have watched public attention and private interest in their proposals ebb and flow along with tide of government funding.

Rod Diridon, a board member of the California High Speed Rail Authority, said his state's plan saw a similar flurry of attention when voters approved a $9 billion bond last year to help finance a proposal linking Los Angles and San Francisco.

"We've likened it to California and the high-speed rail program being the ugliest girl in town, or the ugly duckling, and she was growing up and nobody wanted to be associated with her," Diridon said. "Her uncle gives her $9 billion, and everyone wants to take her to the prom. Well, everyone wants to take us to the prom now."

'A line on a map'

FRA officials have no shortage of possible projects to choose from, each with their own opportunities and challenges, and all with varying sizes and price tags.

A highly circulated agency map, titled "Vision for High-Speed Rail in America," includes 10 federally designated high-speed rail corridors, mostly located near the nation's two coasts. The document also includes the Northeast Corridor, which technically has never been given the federal designation but is home to Amtrak's Acela service, the only passenger train line in the country that has exceeded the 110-miles-per-hour speed necessary to earn DOT's "high speed" classification.

But the stimulus cash is open to any passenger rail system, regardless of whether it is high-speed, and a number of states located outside of DOT's designated corridors have applied for federal funding. Transportation officials in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah have formed the Western High-Speed Rail Alliance in an attempt to put their cities on DOT's map.

FRA's "high speed" designation earns corridors small amounts of federal funds for safety improvements but is not a necessity for the stimulus grants. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has attempted to assure those areas lacking the designation that they are still in the national conversation, and FRA officials have urged states to subscribe to their message of "One region, one voice."

"We're at the beginning, so if somebody in the country didn't see their rail line, that doesn't mean that it's not going to be on there," LaHood said in April.

Still, a number of transportation officials remain wary. As Phoenix transportation planner Dennis Smith told the Arizona Republic earlier this month, "If you don't have a line on the map, you're nowhere."

For obvious reasons, many lawmakers would like to see high-speed rail find a home in their own districts, but most have attempted to walk a fine line between supporting a larger, national plan and focusing attention on their state's efforts.

Florida Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was quick last week to stress to FRA officials that lawmakers were keeping the big picture in mind. "We're not parochial about this," he told Szabo. "We're not campaigning for any site, we're looking for a success for the country."

But later in the same hearing, Rep. Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat who chairs the panel's rail subcommittee, pointed to FRA's map. "There seems to be a major part not connected -- it doesn't go from Jacksonville to Orlando," said Brown, whose district includes Jacksonville. "We need to update it ... it needs to be connected."

Other proposals have their own powerful backers, as well. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) hail from states considered to be strong candidates for federal funds. Both have touted the benefits of their states' respective proposals during congressional hearings this year.

And then there is the Midwestern proposal, which would connect Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis and several Ohio cities that have all been among the hardest hit by the ongoing economic recession, particularly the withering of the auto industry. The region has been a frequent destination of Obama and his Cabinet for public events hyping the administration's economic recovery effort. And the Midwest line would be based out of Illinois, a state that as recently as last year was represented in Congress by Obama, LaHood and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

How fast is fast enough?

One of the biggest questions the administration must answer: How fast is fast enough to be high-speed rail?

Some plans -- such as those in Texas, Florida and California -- are calling for the creation of new high-speed-only lines from scratch. Such plans would allow trains to reach top speeds of 150 mph or higher, approaching the speeds of the European and Asian systems that many in Congress have lauded.

But building new lines and securing the necessary rights-of-way to do so is more difficult and expensive than making improvements to existing rail lines that carry both freight and passenger trains.

Some experts argue that incremental improvements to heavily congested corridors -- such as the initial work on a proposed Midwestern system radiating out from Chicago -- would provide a higher rate of return on the investment. But because much of the system would still be shared by freight trains, the passenger rail service would likely max out around 110 mph.

Amtrak's Acela is able to reach 150 mph along small portions of its route from Washington to New York City and on to Boston, but it still only averages 68 mph. According to Amtrak, the southern portion of the route -- roughly from New York City to Washington, D.C. -- currently takes an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes to travel about 220 miles. To cut just 15 minutes off the trip would take an estimated $625 million. To cut an additional 15 minutes could cost as much as $5 billion.

For comparison, Florida submitted a stimulus application requesting $2.6 billion to build a new 88-mile high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando that would operate in excess of 168 mph. Because the state has previously preserved most of the needed right-of-way between the two cities, it estimates the project will cost a total of $3.5 billion. But the state lacks the same right-of-way advantage for the next stage of its plan, an estimated $8 billion service running from Orlando to Miami.

Lawmakers who will play major roles in future high-speed rail spending are split on what they would like to see, with many coming down on the side of the debate most likely to help their home districts.

Democratic Rep. John Olver, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of annual transportation spending, wants to see the incremental improvement, which would benefit the Acela service that runs through his mostly rural district in western Massachusetts.

At a hearing earlier this year on high-speed investment, Olver concluded that Congress would be unlikely to secure the massive amounts of money needed to build new lines and should instead focus on the ones already in existence. "With a modest capital investment, we could implement higher-speed rail in a number of intercity corridors."

Meanwhile, Mica and Brown, leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee -- which is pushing for a $50 billion investment in high-speed rail over the next six years -- do not want the nation's rail lines to be "high speed" in name only.

"We cannot take the funding to be invested in high-speed rail ... and try to fool people by giving them anything less than true high-speed rail service," said Mica, who represents a district just outside of Orlando.

Publicly, FRA officials have refrained from taking a side in the debate. "All of these speeds and all of these services are important," Szabo told lawmakers. "This is, in fact, the model that is used in Europe and Asia. Not every single train is going 200 miles per hour. It is important to see how these different pieces fit together."

Ultimately, the decision won't be as simple as how fast the trains move. FRA officials and many in the transit community have echoed Obama in saying that it is pointless to move people from one city to another if they have few options for navigating the streets of their destination once they arrive.

The "last mile" issue would appear to level the playing field between those incremental proposals that link cities with robust transit systems and those that have the ability to build new lines but lack existing comprehensive local transit infrastructure.

"If we have small segments that are not connected, that don't interface with public transportation or airports or our highway system in a logical, rational network way, it's not going to make sense," Rae said. "We're not going to build rails to nowhere."