TM&E: All aboard

Peter Gertler, Randy Wade, Peter Denitz, Jim Anglin and Gene Skoropowski / January 26, 2010

Finally, after decades of advocacy and admonition, America is buying a ticket for high-speed rail.

It’s high time. Our nation is struggling to maintain a viable transportation system amid a “perfect storm” of congested highways, backed-up airports, global warming and addiction to fossil fuels.

Nearly everyone agrees that building a high-speed rail system can help solve these problems and create much-needed jobs. It holds the potential to revolutionize our transportation infrastructure as much as the Interstate Highway System did.

Washington has set aside $8 billion in stimulus money for the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. Twenty-four states are asking the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for a combined total of about $50 billion to establish high-speed rail corridor programs. In addition, the FRA has received applications from 34 states totaling $7 billion for specific projects and planning work. The FRA has indicated that they are likely to have multiple rounds of awards, meaning that the $8 billion will not be distributed all at once but spread out over time.

The criteria for grants include job creation, how soon projects can get under way and the sustainability of the projects. Matching funding commitments are not required, but the ones that are on the table are sure to attract positive attention.

The $57 billion in requests will have to get whittled down to $8 billion, and the conventional wisdom is that no state is likely to get 100% of their original request, at least in the first round of funding to be announced in early 2010.

As New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey said recently, investing in high-speed rail lines “would be the most significant infrastructure investment in the future since the creation of the Interstate Highway System a half-century ago.”

No one can predict how much money the various states will receive or for which projects. But amid this swirl of applications, a group of colleagues at HNTB thought it would be helpful to outline the details of some of the most significant applications, along with some contextual background.

Sign-up sheet

While it’s too early to predict which corridors will open up first, timetables mapped out by the states give us some possible scenarios. So, moving from west to east . . .

California: The Golden State has applied for more than $4.7 billion in federal funding for an ambitious high-speed rail system.

California wants to build high-speed rail connecting northern and southern California with trains traveling at 220 mph first with the backbone of the system between San Francisco and Anaheim and with extensions to Sacramento and San Diego in the future. The state’s ongoing battles with traffic congestion and the nation’s most aggressive carbon emission reduction requirements highlight its need for the travel alternative offered by high-speed rail.

At the same time, California’s recession-battered economy would welcome the 127,000 jobs that high-speed rail is expected to bring.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 high-speed rail grants do not require local fund matching. But California has pledged a match of nearly $9 billion to be derived from a high-speed rail bond passed by voters in November 2008. In addition, the bond included $1 billion for local transit connections to the high-speed rail network.

Depending on what happens with the approval process, California hopes to begin construction in 2012 on the backbone of the system between San Francisco and Anaheim.

The Midwest: The buzz about high-speed rail is reaching a crescendo in the crossroads of America.

Amtrak and nine Midwestern states started working on the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative in 1996. The plan calls for a 3,000-mile network hubbed in Chicago.

In July, the eight Midwestern governors and the mayor of Chicago signed a memorandum of understanding to emphasize their support for this undertaking.

“We are determined to take full advantage of federal recovery funds and bring high-speed rail to Illinois and the Midwest,” the governors said.

The system would offer service in key 100- to 500-mile corridors through densely populated areas, providing city-center to city-center connections that commercial air service does not provide. Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison and Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac have been designated as Phase 1 corridors.

The trains would ride on existing freight rail rights-of-way. Track improvements made for high-speed passenger rail also would increase freight system capacity. And routing high-speed rail over existing tracks provides a big cost advantage over developing new track.

The economic boost would bring welcome relief from recessionary woes. On an aggregate basis, the Midwest Regional Rail System would create more than 57,000 permanent new jobs across the Midwest as the system is built out over 10 years.

High-speed rail would accelerate rapidly growing demand for rail travel in Illinois. The state’s four Amtrak routes have experienced some of the fastest growing ridership increases in the country. The Chicago-St. Louis route achieved a record-breaking 57% increase in ridership in 2007-08.

Illinois is asking for $4.36 billion to establish high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis and $1.47 billion for a Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque line. Illinois is expected to chip in an estimated $1.8 million in matching funds, and freight railroads may commit as much as $84.8 million for speed, capacity and/or reliability improvements that will help passenger rail attain high-speed standards in Illinois.

Another lead state in the Midwestern effort is Wisconsin, which is pursuing high-speed rail on multiple fronts. In July, Wisconsin signed a deal with Spanish train maker Talgo to put two Talgo train sets into service and establish new Wisconsin facilities for the assembly and maintenance of high-speed trains.

The agreement provides an option to buy two additional train sets if Wisconsin obtains federal stimulus funding to develop an $817 million high-speed passenger rail line between Milwaukee and Madison.

The new assembly and maintenance facilities could set up shop in Milwaukee or a nearby area of southeastern Wisconsin, which has taken a beating from the recession and job losses. Besides the benefits to Wisconsin, the plants will support the delivery of trains throughout the Midwest and the country.

Michigan, whose economy has been devastated by the recession and auto-industry contraction, is seeking $993.6 million for improvements to the Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac corridor. New train stations would be built in Troy and Dearborn, and a station in Battle Creek would be rehabilitated.

Minnesota’s applications include $135.8 million to build a multimodal transit hub at the St. Paul Union Depot and $1.2 million for engineering and environmental work in the Twin Cities-Milwaukee segment of the Chicago-Milwaukee-Twin Cities corridor.

Missouri’s applications include 11 rail projects worth $201.3 million. The state’s plan is to speed up service on the existing Union Pacific line faster over time as funding becomes available. In conjunction with Wisconsin’s bid, the state is seeking $50 million for the purchase of two new sets of locomotives and passenger equipment for the St. Louis-Kansas City route.

In addition, Iowa has requested $257.7 million to extend service from Chicago to the Quad Cities and Iowa City, and Ohio has requested $563.8 million to start up a new service in the “Three C Corridor” connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

Like much of the country, the top speed on most Midwestern high-speed trains will be 110 mph, considered to be incremental high-speed rail. While this is slower than the 200-mph-plus trains of Europe and Asia, it will increase speeds and reduce travel times in a cost-effective manner.

With the sought-after stimulus funds, the Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison and Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac corridors could open to high-speed rail service between 2012 and 2014.

The Northeast: The Northeast is home to the nation’s only existing high-speed rail service, the Acela Express, which runs along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. While designed to travel at speeds over 150 mph, because of capacity and other infrastructure constraints the Acela Express operates at an average of 80 mph and reaches its maximum speed of 150 mph for about a 20-mile section in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

This is one of the densest travel corridors in the country and the entire world. Home to more than 60 million people, the region comprises only 6% of the nation’s land mass yet more than 20% of its population. It also is a “mega region” in terms of business, housing and jobs. And in the Northeast, travel is quite likely to be along the interstate.

In August, with grant applications aimed at Washington, the Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG) renewed its commitment to an improved, expanded Northeast Rail Network.

The network includes:

  • The Northeast Corridor;
  • The Downeaster linking Boston to Portland, with a proposed extension to Brunswick, Maine;
  • The Boston-Montreal Corridor, a proposed new service that would eventually link Boston to Concord and Montreal, Quebec;
  • The Knowledge Corridor linking the Connecticut River Valley communities between Hartford, Conn., Springfield, Mass., and White River Junction, Vt., with the Boston-New Haven and Boston-Montreal segments of the Northern New England High Speed Rail Corridor, with connection to the Empire Corridor;
  • The Keystone Corridor linking Harrisburg and Philadelphia to the Northeast Corridor; and
  • The Empire and Adirondack Corridors that span New York state and link New York City and Albany with destinations to the west in Buffalo-Niagara Falls and Toronto and to the north in upstate New York and Montreal.

New York, which is seeking $5.3 billion for high-speed rail, has recommended that the first major project to be implemented will be the Schenectady double-track project. This 17-mile initiative includes construction of a second track, signal and grade-crossing improvements between Schenectady and Rensselaer. It is scheduled for completion in 2012 with a maximum authorized speed of 110 mph.

New Jersey has applied for an estimated $38.5 million to help fund a $1.34 billion project to replace the Portal Bridge, a nearly 100-year-old span that carries Northeast Corridor train traffic over the Hackensack River just west of Secaucus. New Jersey is aiming for a late 2011 start for the 66-month project.

Massachusetts, home state of the Acela Express’ terminus in Boston, is seeking $2.15 billion to fund several projects. It hopes to inaugurate high-speed rail on part of the Inland Route, which runs from Boston to Springfield, as early as 2015.

Maine, home of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, is asking for $129.6 million. It hopes to open high-speed service from Portland to the New Hampshire border by 2011.

Pennsylvania has applied for $3.1 billion. The plan calls for three projects to improve existing service along the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg; to reinstitute rail service between Scranton and Hoboken/New York City; and to implement the first phase of a magnetic levitation system connecting Pittsburgh International Airport and downtown Pittsburgh.

Florida: The Sunshine State is requesting $2.6 billion to establish a 90-mile high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando and $30 million to fund environmental and engineering work for the second leg of the system, a 240-mile high-speed route to run from Orlando to Miami.

The Tampa-Orlando-Miami route is a nationally designated rail corridor.

Florida’s geography and growing population densities are well-suited for high-speed rail along these corridors. Besides providing additional mobility to Floridians, high-speed rail would be welcomed by numerous international visitors who are accustomed to this transportation mode in their own countries.

Florida has spent more than $600 million to lay the groundwork for high-speed rail. The biggest portion of that was $570 million for widening the I-4 median to accommodate the future rail line.

Another major accomplishment is Florida’s attainment of federal environmental approval for the Tampa-Orlando segment.

The Florida DOT envisions a public-private partnership (P3) in which private entities would operate and maintain the system for a long period in exchange for ridership revenue. Long a trendsetter in innovative transportation financing and project delivery, FDOT is encouraged by the process undertaken several years ago in which several P3 consortia were committed to operating the Tampa-Orlando segment and projecting ridership revenues to more than cover operation and maintenance expense.

And considering that currently more Floridians are unemployed than at any other time in the state’s history, the state would benefit greatly from stimulus-induced jobs that would accompany high-speed rail design and construction.

If its funding goals can be achieved, Florida hopes to launch high-speed service between Tampa and Orlando by 2014, with the route to Miami online by 2017.

Many other states and regions also provided applications and are well-suited for high-speed rail. For example, many areas of the Southeast U.S. are ripe for high-speed rail, including key travel corridors in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. As a nation, we must realize that high-speed rail will develop fully over a longer period of time, but states and regions such as California, Florida, the Midwest and the Northeast are, at this point in time, most prepared to be among the first to offer high-speed rail to the traveling public.

Suffice it to say that high-speed rail has captured the interest of transportation planners and the traveling public throughout the country.

The long haul

Clearly, no state or region will receive everything that is asked for in this initial round of funding. But rather than be discouraged by the limits of this funding, we need to take the long view of creating a robust and thriving high-speed rail program for the U.S. similar to the commitment made to build the Interstate Highway System.

High-speed rail in America has become an “unstoppable train” now, and it will advance in this country. Transportation experts and transportation consumers realize that high-speed rail will bring important benefits, including greater mobility, more jobs, less traffic congestion, fewer airport delays, less dependence on foreign oil and cleaner air.

We can make high-speed rail advance to its full potential. It will take vision, far-sighted planning and long-term commitment. In addition to short-term stimulus funding, we need to ask our representatives and the administration to support a permanent and secure source of funding for high-speed and intercity rail. We have that opportunity with the pending FY 2010 federal budget and the new transportation authorization bill currently being developed in Congress.

Toward that end, let us stay focused on the opportunity. By doing so, we will stay on track to a vibrant transportation future for the nation.

About the Author

Gertler is the national high-speed rail services chair for HNTB Corp. Other HNTB high-speed rail experts who contributed to this story include: Wade, Madison, Wis.; Denitz, Philadephia; and Skoropowski and Anglin, Orlando, Fla. To learn more about high-sp

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