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The long and winding road that is the U.S. high-speed rail (HSR) program continues to be long, continues to wind and continues to lead us (however gradually) into unchartered territory. Not surprisingly, ups and downs have been par for the 2-year-old program’s course, as Associate Editor Angela Cotey notes in this month’s cover story. As HNTB Corp.’s Peter Gertler told Cotey, who also serves as editor of HSRupdates.com, our subscription-based website dedicated to high-speed rail coverage: “There have been some bumps in the road, but by no means does that mean the whole program is unraveling.”
Of course, what constitutes “par” and what the program’s course actually is remain in the eye of the beholder/stakeholder. Ditto for the “unraveling” perception. As a result, it’s as challenging as it has ever been to put the U.S. HSR program into meaningful context, and not simply because of the way the nascent program has evolved to date.
Regardless of what happened in Florida or what wasn’t in the federal FY2011 budget or what’s blowing in the political wind, U.S. HSR never was on the fast track, a reality that shouldn’t kill whatever buzz HSR has left, but it does. Funding over the long haul — not funding for one project here, or that FY budget there — is and always has been the key. Meanwhile, HSR in the USA is a long-term proposition requiring buy-ins and sign-offs from a wide range of stakeholders; consider it in a vacuum and you fail to consider it. HSR is a puzzle piece, a factor in the bigger-picture transportation policy equation. Unfortunately, that lengthy equation doesn’t appear to be even a bullet point on the to-be-discussed list in D.C. — at least not right now. That makes thoughtful consideration of HSR’s near-term future that much more difficult, if not near impossible.
There was a time — 2007/2008 or so — when there were at least the beginnings of a meaningful conversation in D.C. about what it might take to develop a transportation policy/vision, and rail’s role (possibly including higher-speed passenger rail) in it. The Great Recession and political climate change certainly helped put thoughtful transportation policy-shaping on indefinite hold. Now, conversations center on program cuts. Whether rail infrastructure spending makes the investment discussion cut anytime soon is anybody’s guess. And “guess” is very much the precise and proper word here. In other words: This is a really bad time to be in the prediction business, as a rail industry prognosticator told me recently. Focus on what’s in front of you in an HSR context, say, and you very well could conclude that the U.S. program is unraveling or dead, as more than a few pundits (professional or presumed) have declared. If you’d like to work a little harder to avoid a forest-for-the-trees misstep, you’ll look a bit farther down the road. If you do, you’ll try to read the global economic and political tea leaves. Good luck on that score.
My shot at putting the U.S. HSR program into perspective? It’s bound to disappoint, but it’s this: An either/or characterization of this still-evolving program — on track or off, boon or boondoggle, alive or dead — may be sound-bite friendly, but it’s false.
With HSR, we’re neither building a bridge to tomorrow nor tilting at windmills — it’s something in between. But even there, in in-between land, it’s too early to assess the HSR program’s successes or failures, much less characterize what HSR is or will be in the United States. What’s more, there are few context clues to help us frame this program’s future. But here’s one: 32 states are moving forward with plans for $10 billion worth of higher-speed and intercity passenger rail projects. HSR, a drop-in-the-bucket approximation of same or whatever one chooses to call it, already is part of the U.S. rail landscape.
HSR already is part of the bigger-picture planning mix, too — even if the bigger-picture discussions are on hold, and as unsatisfying and un-sound-bite friendly as that may be.
As for the larger question of when we actually get back to discussing that bigger picture, that transportation policy/vision thing? No predictions here. Let’s see where the economy takes us and what the next few election cycles net. In the meantime, we’ll remain on the context beat — within these pages and on HSRupdates.com.
Pat Foran, Editor