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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

U.S. high-speed rail likely to be built incrementally, consultants say at 8th world congress

By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

Funding for U.S. high-speed rail projects has all but dried up, states that not long ago thought their projects were on the fast track for completion have scaled back plans and the excitement that once surrounded the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program has dimmed. So, now what?

That was a recurring question during the 8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail, held July 10-13 at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center. Perhaps the most realistic answer was offered the afternoon of July 11 during a presentation entitled, “Building U.S. HSR Incrementally.”

Sharon Greene, principal with transportation consulting firm Sharon Greene & Associates, and Sasha Page, vice president of infrastructure consulting firm Infrastructure Management Group, addressed the “now what?” questions with their discussion on how the United States needs to refocus its high-speed plans. The also provided examples of projects that could help advance high- and higher-speed rail in an incremental fashion.

“We went from very active systems planning back to incrementalism,” said Greene. “It’s not that we’ve given up on systems planning, but we’re taking a more realistic approach.”

The approach includes refocusing on U.S. high-speed rail development policy, taking into consideration the current political environment and lack of funding. It’ll also be important to integrate higher-speed services with existing services, and prioritize “foundation” projects (such as the Gateway project in the Northeast and Transbay Terminal in California) and the role they play, Greene said.

“These projects have taken on an added significance,” she said. “They not only help provide blended service, but these are projects that can give us benefits sooner, significantly improve mobility and build the political support needed to stimulate funding approvals.”

Adding new intercity passenger-rail corridors, and not necessarily high-speed ones, would support the incremental approach, as well, Page said.

For example, Texas is considering new passenger-rail lines along the Cotton Belt corridor in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, as well as between Austin and San Antonio, and Dallas and Houston.

“Getting an alignment available that would go through these cities could be a key foundation for a San Antonio-Austin-Dallas high-speed rail segment,” Page said. “This is one example of a project — and they’re all throughout the U.S. — that are not part of a high-speed rail program, but could become the foundation for one.”

And just as high-speed rail development in the United States likely will be done incrementally, financing for it will be, too.

“There is not going to be one, big program from the federal government — there never was initially, but the hope was that the federal government would have a substantial program,” said Page.

Funding at the state and local levels will be piecemeal, as well, and private funding — aside from what’s being offered for the southern California-to-Las Vegas DesertXpress and Orlando-to-Miami All Aboard Florida projects — will be scarce, Page believes.

However, states and agencies can use innovative financing mechanisms such as the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) and Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing programs to help fund some projects. In the latest surface transportation authorization bill, TIFIA, which provides low-interest loans for transit projects, “got a real shot in the arm,” according to Page.

“So there is money out there,” he said. “It’s not free money, but these kinds of loans can be worked with as funding sources. We have to think of them as pieces of the pot.”

The piecemeal approach to HSR will take longer and won’t be as dramatic an effect as a large-scale program, but, as session moderator and former American Public Transportation Association President Bill Millar put it: “It almost makes the U.S. situation look more hopeful.”

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 7/16/2012