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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

December 2010

Part 1 : Rail Outlook: 2011

Part 2 :

Rail Outlook 2011: Preface

Part 3 :

Class I Outlook: 'Year of Opportunity'

Part 4 : 'Certainty is what drives investment' — AAR's Ed Hamberger

Part 5 : Short-Line Outlook 2011

Part 6 :

Passenger Rail Outlook 2011 - 'Still a Little Tenuous'

Part 7 :

High-Speed Rail: In flux in 2011

Part 8 : Rail-Car Deliveries in 2011

Part 9 :

Going with the in-flux flow (Outlook 2011) and Class I workforce data (Pat Foran, Context, December 2010)

Rail News: Passenger Rail

High-Speed Rail: In flux in 2011


— by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

High-speed rail's future in flux

Nearly two years ago, high-speed rail (HSR) supporters were riding high after Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which unexpectedly included $8 billion for high-speed rail. A few months later, President Obama outlined a HSR vision that called for creating a national network of high- and higher-speed intercity passenger-rail corridors. HSR has been making headlines ever since, and backers hope this will be the generation during which HSR becomes a reality in the United States.

But with the changing political environment, HSR's future now is anything but certain. Newly elected governors are threatening to return high-speed stimulus funds back to the federal government. Republican congressmen — who soon will have control of the House — are threatening to divert unobligated high-speed stimulus funds for other purposes. As National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association President Chuck Baker puts it, the HSR program "has problems."

In the short term, concerns revolve around whether new Republican governors — particularly in Wisconsin and Ohio — will follow through on threats to stop high-speed projects in their respective states. Although there are varying scenarios for how the money might be returned and how it could be used, states most likely would return the funds to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would redistribute the dollars to other states for HSR purposes, says Baker.

Longer-term, the issues are much more complicated — and potentially more destructive to the HSR program as a whole. During the past two years, HSR supporters have been banking on dedicated dollars in the next surface transportation reauthorization bill to advance the program.

"Right now, we're not seeing any signs that there's a chance of getting meaningful new revenue into the program for anything," says Baker. "And without new revenue, it's inconceivable to imagine some amount of money being peeled off the existing program for high-speed rail."

And that would leave projects in many states only partially funded. That's a big problem for Florida and California, which still need billions of additional dollars to complete their HSR programs.

But just because the political landscape might be tougher to navigate, don't count HSR out entirely, says American High Speed Rail Alliance Chairman Al Swift.

"A lot of it depends on how well we do our job to make the case for high-speed rail," he said during a Nov. 2 podcast posted on

HSR advocates need to educate members of Congress on the distinction between high-speed rail and higher-speed rail, making sure lawmakers understand that improvements that can be made to rail lines at relatively little cost, he says. Down the road, those improvements could serve as stepping stones to "true" high-speed rail, Swift says.

"We've got to tell that story," he says. "We need to talk about the advantages of high-speed rail in the overall transportation system."

Regardless of what happens in the coming year, the HSR program will be in flux for the foreseeable future.

"The huge question is whether or not Obama gets re-elected. If he gets beaten by a Republican in 2012, the assumption is that would be bad for high-speed rail, even though that might not be true," says Baker. "There might be a Republican who looks at high-speed rail favorably that wins the presidential election."

For more on HSR's 2011 outlook — and other HSR news — subscribe to A one-year subscription costs $199.

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