Release #09-07—June 17, 2009
PDF Version of High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program Guidance
Washington, D.C., June 17, 2009—Administration officials unveiled the much anticipated interim guidance for their high-speed intercity passenger rail program this morning, revealing more detail about what President Obama’s vision for a new network of high-speed trains will look like when it becomes a reality.
“The time has finally come for the United States to get serious about building a national network of high-speed rail corridors we can all be proud of,” said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “High-speed rail can reduce traffic congestion and link up with light rail, subways and buses to make travel more convenient and our communities more livable.”
Secretary LaHood, along with Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, released the interim guidance, which has been the result of an unprecedented outreach to almost 1,200 stakeholders—state officials, non-profit advocates, rail industry representatives, and members of the public working to rejuvenate—or interested in rejuvenating—the nation’s train system.
“The result of this outreach shows a clear understanding of what makes trains successful, by using passenger-miles [one passenger transported one mile]; convenience of intermodal connections to local transit, airports, and bus terminals; and an appropriately broad definition of benefits that includes energy efficiency, environmental, and quality-of-life improvements as key measures in evaluating applicants” said NARP’s Director of Communications, Sean Jeans-Gail. “This plan lays the groundwork for something that can truly transform the way Americans move about in their lives.”
The guidance overview reveals what appears to be an extremely flexible system for distributing federal funds. The FRA has created four funding tracks to address a wide range of potential applicant goals. “Track 1,” whose effects will be felt most immediately, is for the distribution of the $8 billion in Recovery Act funds and will go to ready-to-go intercity passenger rail construction projects—though expenses incidental to construction and acquisition will be covered, including “designing, engineering, location surveying, mapping, environmental studies, and acquiring rights-of-way.” “Track 2” is for longer-term high-speed and intercity service development (including substantial upgrades to existing service); “track 3” will be for developing a “pipeline” of future projects; and “track 4” offers a simplified alternative for states willing to match federal funds by at least 50%.
The multiple tracks will be crucial to ensure that the benefits of the funds are felt across the country. Some states that already chosen to make trains a priority are far ahead of others in rail planning—most notably California, which passed a bond act in 2008 to issue $9.95 billion for a state-wide high-speed rail system. While those states with rail plans have an advantage in securing funds, the FRA’s guidance shows a willingness to help develop rail plans in partnerships with states that have little experience in this type of planning. This is underscored by the early July 10 pre-application date, which will allow the FRA to provide feedback on the project applications
“I think the July 10 date for public comment and pre-applications shows a commitment by the Administration to, first, alter the guidance they have provided if it is truly needed, but more importantly, to work with states as facilitators for rail projects, and not just act as gatekeepers of federal funds” said Jeans-Gail. “That, in conjunction with the decision not to pre-judge how much money will flow through each of the three programs set up the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act passed by Congress last fall, strongly implies that they are very serious about allocating where this money goes based on the quality of the applications they receive.”
Final applications for funding Tracks 1, 3, and 4 are due August 24; applications for funding Track 2 are due by October 2 (the guidelines also note the potential for a subsequent round of solicitations after 2009). Given President Obama’s recent public commitment to speeding up the distribution of stimulus funds, it is likely that the money will be awarded soon after. This would be excellent news for the nation’s construction and manufacturing sectors; the FRA’s interim guidance calls for the promotion of “standard equipment (or rolling stock),” and this $8 billion infusion into rail could signal start of a unified train-based industry in America.