Interest in high-speed rail was lukewarm until President Obama packed $8 billion for it into the stimulus package.
Now, standing-room-only crowds show up when rail is on the agenda, and some high-speed-rail advocates are not sure anymore about who's at the throttle and who's in the caboose.
"You have a lot of voices out there. ... That's what we need, and that's what it will take," said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, or APTA. "But we need to have some order."
Restoring order won't be easy. Nothing stirs passions for a massive public-works project like a wad of federal cash.
Guzzetti and other established rail advocates are urging supporters to follow tracks laid over decades by groups that began the high-speed push when it was pie in the sky. But not everyone will let old pros like APTA and the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials lead the charge.
A brash newcomer is warning that established players do not push hard enough or fast enough.
"I think the problem is there is no clear vision or message coming from those groups," said Andy Kuntz, the executive director and founder of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, a startup that formed in June and held its first conference last month in Washington, D.C. "We got into discussions with them early on, and none had a clear vision on how do we build it, how do we get systems on the same level as France and Japan."
Kuntz's group is promoting the most ambitious high-speed rail plan, a nationwide passenger rail network of 17,000 miles by 2030, complete with high-speed-only lines that top 200 miles per hour. Price tag: $600 billion.
"Many are saying that we can't do it, that ... we have to do this incremental approach first, and then years later do the rest," Kuntz said. "Well, we're prepared to build it now."
Guzzetti said Kuntz's group is overlooking years of work by states and regions that have laid a foundation behind many proposals seeking federal funding.
"Not everything is going to be the 200 miles per hour U.S. High Speed Rail is advocating for," Guzzetti said. "You can't tell people that have worked for years for consensus that their plans are wrong. Sometimes you will get to 200 [miles per hour] in incremental steps, sometimes you'll be perfectly well served at 110."
Many stakeholders from both the public and private sectors declined to comment for the record on the growing rift between high-speed-rail groups.
But tensions between the old guard and the upstarts were on display last month at APTA's annual conference in Orlando, Fla., where Rod Diridon, a board member at the California High-Speed Rail Authority and executive director of the congressionally created Mineta Transportation Institute, referred to some newcomers as "vultures."
"It's at a point where we finally have a project now," Diridon said. "Unfortunately, that's brought the vultures in."
Diridon continued: "We're seeing now organizations that have been created ... primarily for profit that are attempting to call themselves 'this high-speed rail' and 'this high-speed rail.' And that's something that costs energy. It causes confusion in Congress. They are directly in competition with our other programs, and it's a distraction that we cannot afford."
Diridon, who has been called the "father" of California's high-speed rail effort, spoke out as he moderated a high-speed rail panel. He went on to urge boycotts of high-speed rail events that are not organized by APTA, AASHTO or States for Passenger Rail, a coalition of two dozen or so states that have pieces of 10 federally designated high-speed rail corridors.
"If I can borrow a term from our good friends in labor, they are a 'Do not patronize,'" said Diridon, who served as APTA chairman in the early 1990s and has also chaired several National Research Council committees. "You need to remember that, please. And I cannot say it any stronger."
In an interview, Diridon expanded on his comments.
"There is room for a lot of support, but the thing that irritates some of us is that many of our organizations have been working on [high-speed rail] for the past 40 years," Diridon said. "What is inappropriate is when a new organization pops out of whole cloth and says, 'Here's an issue with some real character and interest, let's make some money off of it.'"
Diridon said his problem with the new groups was that, while they may be organized as nonprofits, they nonetheless siphon funding that he believes would be best used on lobbying and advocacy efforts.
"There isn't a lot of money for travel and dues or event sponsorships, especially in hard times," Diridon said. "What money there is ought to be focused on funding advocacy and not diverted to these new groups that come out of nowhere."
'Key to success in Washington'
Kuntz defended his U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, saying he started it because he feared high-speed rail would not get the necessary attention from groups that also represent other modes of transportation.
"There are a lot of other groups that are promoting high-speed rail, but most are doing it as part of a bigger, broader approach toward sustainable transportation," Kuntz said. "The problem I had was that none of them were really giving high speed the focus and the priority it needed. It really needed its own champion that was focused 100 percent, rather than 5 or 10 percent like some of these other organizations."
But the broader views of transportation taken by APTA and AASHTO are necessary for success on Capitol Hill, Diridon countered.
"If you go to Washington and only say 'high-speed rail,' you're going to irritate the dickens out of the bus operators, the airport operators and everyone else," Diridon said. "Coalition advocacy is the key to success in Washington. It doesn't put your congressional leaders at risk. If you convince them to only support one [mode of transportation], they are going to be immediately attacked by the other modes who will think you're trying to take their money."
APTA's Guzzetti said the Federal Railroad Administration and other key players in Washington are not confused about which group to work with.
"I can tell you that in the federal circles it's more clear, meaning FRA knows who to call and all that," Guzzetti said.
Guzzetti maintains his group should be a "major voice, a prime voice" in the rail debate partly because it includes the legacy members of the old High Speed Ground Transportation Association, an early advocate for high-speed rail that merged with APTA in 2006.
"For a long time, they were the main voice at a time when it was more idea-chasing," Guzzetti said. "It was going after big ideas that weren't quite showing up on the federal program."
Kuntz conceded that other organizations are older than the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, but older, he said, does not mean better.
"They say we're diluting the message. I don't think there is a clear message," Kuntz said. "The one out there is already convoluted -- a few patchworks, a little bit of that, and a little of this. That's one reason we need to exist is to cut through that and put out a bold vision."
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