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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

All freight-rail hosts, states to come to stakeholder-agreement terms by year's end, FRA's Szabo predicts


Might the slow boat to high-speed rail pick up a little speed this fall?

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo suggested as much last week when he said freight-rail hosts and state departments of transportation were making progress on the stakeholder agreement front, citing what he considered to be a better "tone and tenor" during recent "good-faith exchange" grant-agreement discussions.

Szabo made the comments at Progressive Railroading's annual RailTrends conference, held Sept. 28-29 in New York City.

"I think you'll see most of them come to terms within 30 to 60 days — certainly by the end of this year," he told RailTrends attendees during a Sept. 29 presentation.

In May, the FRA posted high-speed-related guidance on its website. The document — titled “Re: High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program – Stakeholder Agreements” — appeared without fanfare; the FRA did not issue a public statement regarding the guidance. The agency also didn’t seek input from freight-rail hosts or let them know that the new guidance was coming. The guidance language also suggested host roads potentially would be on the hook for a lot more than they originally bargained for. Class I execs, too, were surprised to learn the extent to which their roads now would be penalized for failing to meet on-time performance standards for intercity passenger traffic —  traffic that they haven’t exactly been itching to carry, as it is.

The result: Railroads cried "foul" and the U.S. Department of Transportation/FRA issued a mea culpa. Federal officials pledged to work with the rails during the summer to develop new guidance. Although no new guidance had been issued through September, Szabo's comments suggest freight-rail hosts and state officials are figuring out how to hammer out pacts on their own.

Szabo reiterated that U.S. HSR won't be developed at freight rail's expense: "We're simply not going to let that happen. ... It's not a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It's raising the performance of both through public investment."

If freights and states can come to terms by year's end, it'd be a "tremendous victory," said Chuck Baker, a partner in Washington, D.C., law firm Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell L.L.C., and an American High Speed Rail Alliance advisory board member. But Baker isn't sure stakeholders will be able to tie up all the loose ends this year.

"I'm not up here to doubt [Szabo], but I'd be surprised if they're all done by the end of the year," Baker said.

But the biggest threat to HSR isn't the pace at which stakeholder agreements are forged, or the outcomes of the November elections — it's whether HSR is included in guaranteed funding/contract authority in the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization bill, or is left with an authorization for future uncertain appropriations, said Baker, who updated RailTrends attendees on HSR's funding, financing and legislative prospects during a Sept. 29 presentation of his own.

"If it doesn't get that guaranteed six-year funding, HSR is in trouble," he said. "This program could be undone."

— Pat Foran

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 10/4/2010