For the first time, a fair amount of federal money has been set aside for high-speed rail — the much sought after $13 billion from the federal stimulus and budget. And we’ve seen all sorts of hands in many different states reaching for this funding for their projects, many of which certainly stretch even the low federal 110mph definition of high-speed rail. Last week’s project evaluation criteria put out by the Department of Transportation for rail stimulus money sets some boundaries, but the Government Accountability Office is asking a fair question: where’s the real “strategic plan” for this high-speed rail “vision”? The Transport Politic, naturally, has some good commentary on this:
[GAO Director of Physical Infrastructure] Ms. Fleming’s statement comes three months after the release of GAO’s major report on high-speed rail, which advocated a major federal investment in the transportation mode. Emphasizing that that report pushed the DOT to pinpoint specific goals for rail improvement, Ms. Fleming argued that the Obama Administration’s actions so far were little more than a “vision,” rather than “a strategic plan.” The U.S. must “define goals for investing in high speed rail,” she said, and describe “how these investments will achieve them, how the federal government will determine which corridors it could invest in, [and] how high speed rail investments could be evaluated against possible alternative modes in those corridors.” Ms. Fleming said that the FRA largely agreed with her opinions. In fact, DOT has been planning to release a draft national rail plan by mid-October; however, that is a month after the FRA will release initial stimulus bill grants to applicant projects for rail investment.
Mr. Szabo, the head of the FRA, said that U.S. plans were similar to those already achieved in Europe. Yet the U.S. government has yet to commit to even one high-speed corridor, nor has it established a reliable and objective framework for national planning.
Mr. Boardman, meanwhile, claimed that “With high-speed rail, speed is not the issue. Convenience and trip times are.” This rhetoric is dangerous on several counts. For one, it will allow the U.S. to distribute funds to projects that are ill-suited to high-speed rail, but which are politically popular. The Senate’s strong rural bent means that unworthy projects may be given the green light ahead of more valuable ones if the DOT’s guidelines for resource distribution aren’t based on projected passenger ridership and cost effectiveness.
Second, the repeated claim that speed “doesn’t matter” may result in less-than-popular completed projected. It is worth again mentioning what I wrote yesterday: if the U.S. doesn’t get high-speed rail right the first time, it may be decades before the mode is politically acceptable enough to promote again.
This is a difficult issue to grapple with. Here at TFA, we’re in favor of passenger rail improvement on all levels… not just the European-style “true high-speed” routes. Incremental improvements to existing routes can make a huge difference in a country that is woefully under-served by convenient rail transportation. On the other hand, Freemark’s comment about the need to “get it right the first time” is certainly valid. Any slight boondoggle with high-speed rail money is sure to be leaped upon by highway interests as a way to put a stop to this new progressive attitude towards intercity transportation. This is why projects such as California’s are so important. It’s the ideal proving ground for an American rail line at world-class speeds. It can be the example rail advocates and politicians can point to in the future as a successful model. On the other hand, any federal rail plan needs to address the more immediate (or, dare I say, “shovel-ready”) problems that are affecting our existing Amtrak network. Passenger rail in America is growing in popularity and visibility, and it needs immediate improvement if this momentum is going to last until the first “true” high-speed line is built.