Commentary by Peter Gertler, HNTB Corp.
Borrowing from the fireman's lesson to children to "stop, drop and roll," America needs to "listen, discuss and act" on the need to invest in sustainable infrastructure and to have a realistic, substantive discussion about the future of U.S. passenger rail. We have an unprecedented opportunity to frame a productive discussion if we:
Listen — Elected officials need to move beyond party politics to listen more to the experts about passenger rail's value in securing America's multi-modal future.
Discuss — At a time when Congress is grappling with funding issues, our leaders need to direct Americans in a constructive and forward-thinking conversation about generating revenue, cutting costs and enhancing our infrastructure for future generations by investing in passenger rail.
Act — Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call. We cannot take our passenger rail systems for granted. Working together, we can respond to a crisis.
Where The Conversation Stands
The message about the benefits of high-speed rail has not changed, but the conversation has evolved from "Let's build high-speed rail" to "Let's improve the passenger-rail system, of which high-speed and intercity rail are critical components, to create a robust, integrated and sustainable public transportation system necessary for a growing, highly mobile society."
The long-term vision remains intact. The United States will have an integrated and efficient passenger-rail system with trains running at higher and conventional speeds that connect major urban areas. The steps necessary to achieve that long-term vision will require several local and regional improvements first be made, including:
- Enhance reliability, capacity and safety by maintaining and modernizing regional and local rail systems.
- Where there is demand for a cost-effective alternative to existing travel options, expand the existing rail systems.
- Maximize the convenience and attractiveness of rail travel with integrated connectivity, scheduling transfers and fare systems.
These local and regional improvements are the backbone of the future U.S. high-speed rail system and if it is to operate efficiently and effectively, the existing lines must operate efficiently and effectively, too.
In the meantime, progress is being made on several projects. In the Midwest, Illinois began 110 mph rail service on a 15-mile segment of the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor in November 2012 and trains have been operating at speeds up to 110 mph on an 80-mile stretch between Kalamazoo, Mich., and Porter, Ind. since February 2012.
The Northeast Corridor has embarked on many significant projects to improve reliability and speed, including the New Jersey 160 mph project, Baltimore Tunnel and the Gateway Project, which are necessary to keep one of the world's busiest and most productive rail corridors operating at high efficiency and capacity.
And, California is selecting a design-build contractor for a 130-mile section of high-speed rail known as the Central Valley Corridor, regarded as the backbone of California's planned 800-mile system. Construction is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2013.
In just four years, the passenger rail industry will have even greater progress to show for America's investment:
- Construction will be substantially underway on the 130-mile segment in California.
- Passengers up and down the Northeast will see improved speeds and reliability on existing corridors.
- The Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor will be completed, as will the Kalamazoo-Dearborn portion of the Chicago-to-Detroit/Pontiac corridor.
- High-speed and intercity rail studies in Texas, Georgia, New York and other states will have completed initial planning and environmental studies, and will be pipelined and funding-ready for final design and construction.
Beyond September 2014, no one knows exactly where funding for U.S. passenger rail will come from or how much will be available. We do know we can't let this opportunity slip away. We are on the brink of a greatly improved passenger-rail system, but there won't be money to complete the work unless we find solutions now. We can't wait until three months before the next authorization deadline to decide. We need to listen, discuss and act now to identify solutions for tomorrow. n
Peter Gertler is the high-speed rail services chair for HNTB Corp. The company is providing services for several U.S. high-speed rail projects. He can be reached at email@example.com. (This commentary appeared as a "Guest Comment" in Progressive Railroading's January 2013 issue.)
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