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Rail News: High-Speed Rail

FRA's Szabo on HSR development: 'Past the point of no return'


Joseph Szabo
On Aug. 20, the Federal Railroad Administration held a press teleconference to provide an update on the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. During the teleconference, FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo addressed stakeholder agreements and freight partnerships, as well as project opposition.

But first, he provided a review of the HSR program, which has expanded beyond the initial $8 billion recovery act start-up fund to include a couple of smaller appropriations. Currently, $11.45 billion is available through the FRA for high-speed and intercity passenger-rail projects and planning, including $2.25 billion in FY2010 appropriation grants, $65 million in construction project funds from the FY2009 appropriations bill and $50 million in planning project funds from FY2010 appropriations.

Through late last week, FRA had obligated about $585 million in stimulus funds for 13 projects, said Szabo. As a result, several states have begun or soon will begin station projects, North Carolina has started rehabbing locomotives and Florida is launching some on-site environmental work.

The FRA is set to obligate another $209 million in stimulus dollars for seven projects with states that have almost completed the formal grant agreement process. In addition, a handful of states are completing technical work to advance the grant process for another seven projects totaling $120 million, said Szabo.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 mandates that the FRA obligate all high-speed stimulus funds by Sept. 30, 2012. Not only will the agency meet that deadline, it’s on track to beat it, said Szabo.

“Obviously we track almost daily our obligation rate and where projects are at,” he said. “We’re ahead of our goal.”

Meanwhile, the agency is analyzing grant applications it received in May for the $65 million in construction funds and $50 million in planning dollars, as well as applications received Aug. 6 for the $2.25 billion in FY2010 appropriations. FRA expects to announce grant recipients for both programs in the fall, said Szabo, though he didn’t get any more specific.

The FRA also is working to address stakeholder agreement issues for the many states that propose running higher-speed service on freight tracks, and the host railroads that own those tracks. In May, the FRA released stakeholder agreement guidance for the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program. However, the document “got out without the appropriate level of vetting” and the FRA since has pulled the guidance and is working with the Association of American Railroads to develop a new document.

“It’s important in any partnership that you properly respect your partners and we know that with the initial guidance we put out, we didn’t do a good job respecting our partners there,” said Szabo. “That allowed for potentially extreme interpretations of what was trying to be achieved.”

The FRA now holds monthly conference calls with AAR officials and hopes to have a draft of the revised guidance in the next 30 days, Szabo said, adding that the guidance will revolve around several core principles: America’s “world-class” freight-rail system has to be preserved and improved; HSR grants are for the benefit of existing or future intercity passenger-rail service and will fund necessary infrastructure improvements that will ensure a high level of performance; states and host freight railroads must achieve a necessary balance to protect the public and private interest, and the needs and concerns of both must be addressed; and quantifiable performance outcomes must be achieved based on mutually agreed-upon modeling.

Despite the steep learning curve that comes with managing a multi-billion-dollar program, Szabo is confident that HSR development in the United States is headed in the right direction.

“I believe the President has sparked the imagination of the American people and I believe we’re already past the point of no return,” he said. “If you look at the level of enthusiasm from all states, how strongly oversubscribed the program is, the opinion polls and the bipartisan support … we’re well on our way.”

And while Szabo is well aware of the many community groups and political leaders that are trying to derail HSR projects in some states — “It’s campaign season, so you see lots of political rhetoric,” he said — he believes that the support for HSR outweighs any opposition.

“This will be a program that transcends political administrations in states and the national government — they will come and go and change many times over the next 25 years,” he said. “The program is bigger than any politics.”

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 8/23/2010