Friday, June 3, 2011

A Week-End Review of the High-Speed Rail Situation

An extensive national overview of high-speed rail in the United States.  Consider it a required week-end reading assignment. However, excercise full filter-on since it comes from an industry advocacy "news" document. 

One constraint within this article is that major sources of information include Ray LaHood, who of course favors the current HSR program and promotes it aggressively, and John Mica, who opposes the President's HSR program but supports HSR in principle.  He wants it privatized and only -- for starters -- on the NorthEast Corridor, which the Administration has ignored up to now.  A few others who are either on the payroll or supported by HSR otherwise, also get their oar into this water. 

Overlooking the obvious biases, the article contains enough information to constitute a pre-test review and description of current conditions, at least seen from -- shall we say -- the other side.

The problem with high-speed rail discussions, as we've said many times, is that they are decontextualized.  No one is asking, do we even need high-speed rail for the existing transit market in the US? Or asked in a more neutral way, what are our transit needs over the next 100 years?  What are the most cost-effective ways of improving our transit capacity?

Instead, all these discussions begin with the assumption of the necessity for high-speed rail like in France, Spain or China, somewhere in the US.  We are being taught by the HSR promoters to feel naked and deprived without at least one such train in our possession.  

It's a form of materialism-envy; lusting for that which we do not own, when others own one. To put it mildly, it's a dumb reason for spending multi-billions on a luxury train for the rich, in order for the Obama Administration to have something to point to as an achievement in the "race to win the future."  National life may be a struggle; but it certainly isn't a race. . . .unless we choose to make it one. 

LaHood is a salesman, and not a very convincing one at that.  But, Mica now has his hands on the controls.  I don't understand him. He opposes funding HSR with public funds and wants such a system in the NEC funded privately. That can't happen, and he knows it.  On the other hand he complains about the backwardness of the passenger rail service in the US, about Amtrak, and that the average Acela speed is no more than 83 mph. Speed costs.  If he doesn't want the government to pay, and there is no private funding on the horizon, then what?

High-speed rail gets so much attention in the media because of its mis-management and conflicts over it, not because it's considered an essential ingredient of our natioal transit network. (Sort of like Lindsey Lohan or Charlie Sheen.)

I don't want to parse each sales pitch from Rachel Wall  (who appears to be like Cleopatra, Queen of Denial), assigned the thankless task of making lemonade out of rotten lemons, or Andy Kunz, who makes his living selling high-speed rail.  What none of these people are taking into account in their rationalizations is the very high likelihood of no future funding for HSR in California, or for HSR in the federal FY2012 budget and Transportation Budget re-authorization.

That makes much of their tap-dancing about what's going to happen with the most unpredictable mega-infrastructure project in history really moot.  

When you've completed this article, you will come to the realization that all this high-speed rail business is offiically sanctioned chaos.   They are using this program for political, not transit purposes.  It's in a constant state of flux. 

They are calling even the Amtrak "slow train to China" High-Speed in order to qualify for the earmarked political hand-outs.  Mica needs both to oppose the Democrats and deny them the HSR program's marketing power come the next election.  Yet, he has to look like he's on top of the passenger rail situation.  Alll of them are avoiding the larger issue and crisis to fix what's broken, because that doesn't buy votes.

This High-Speed Rail program, to put it succinctly, is being operated by the Marx Brothers.  Well, we hope that this funny film about funny-business will soon be over.  

There is hope.  This is the year during which we may very well see the end of this nightmare that has been haunting us for decades,at least in California.  While I'm not yet optimistic, I am hopeful. 

High-Speed Rail Update
Updated: May 17, 2011

In April, President Barak Obama’s signing of the Full Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 significantly reduced non-Trust Fund transportation programs. The bill provides no funding for high speed rail in fiscal year 2011 and cuts the Capital Investment Grant (New Starts) program by $400 million, in addition to a $280 million recession of fiscal year 2010 New Starts Funds.

While this may appear to be a significant blow to high speed rail, it does not affect any projects that have already been awarded federal funding. In addition, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced earlier in April the addition of $2 billion for high speed rail projects. The announcement originally included $2.4 billion, however the $400 million cut in the Appropriations Act takes it down to $2 billion. Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak submitted 98 applications with funding requests totaling more than $10 billion. To date, approximately $5.7 billion has been obligated for rail projects. 

On May 9, LaHood announced the projects that were awarded the additional $2 billion. The Department’s Federal Railroad Administration selected 15 states and Amtrak to receive $2.02 billion for 22 high-speed intercity passenger rail projects as part of a nationwide network that will connect 80 percent of Americans to high-speed rail in 25 years. Projects were awarded to applications that would offer the strongest and most reliable partnerships, LaHood said.

According to the Department of Transportation, the dedicated rail dollars will:

•Make an unprecedented investment in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), with $795 million to upgrade some of the most heavily-used sections of the corridor. The investments will increase speeds from 135 to 160 miles per hour on critical segments, improve on-time performance and add more seats for passengers.

•Provide $404.1 million to expand high-speed rail service in the Midwest. Newly constructed segments of 110-mph track between Detroit and Chicago will save passengers 30 minutes in travel time and create nearly 1,000 new jobs in the construction phase. Upgrades to the Chicago to St. Louis corridor will shave time off the trip, enhance safety and improve ridership.

•Boost U.S. manufacturing through a $336.2 million investment in state-of-the-art locomotives and rail cars for California and the Midwest. “Next Generation” rail equipment will deliver safe, reliable and high-tech American-built vehicles for passenger travel.

•Continue laying the groundwork for the nation’s first 220-mph high-speed rail system in California through a $300 million investment, extending the current 110 mile segment an additional 20 miles to advance completion of the Central Valley project, the backbone of the Los Angeles to San Francisco corridor.
“To be able to include Amtrak and to really highlight the Northeast Corridor I think sends the message that we’re serious about improving existing rail right away but also giving some opportunities to some projects around the country,” LaHood said.
Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure U.S. House of Representatives chairman, says the Northeast Corridor is the most viable area for the United States to develop high speed rail.

“There are a number of reasons why the Northeast Corridor is the most logical area for us to develop high-speed rail. One of those reasons is the number of existing fixed transit systems in the densely populated metropolitan regions along the corridor. Without these transit connections to help distribute potential riders to their destinations, a high-speed rail system becomes less viable,” Mica says.
Northeast Corridor

Mica doesn’t believe these numbers are as positive as they may appear and is disappointed in the progress that has been made.

“The United States still does not have a single high-speed passenger rail system. The closest we have come is the Amtrak Acela in the Northeast Corridor, but at an average speed of 83 mph, it’s left stuck at the station compared to truly high-speed systems in Europe and Asia,” Mica says.
While the Northeast Corridor doesn’t represent true high speed rail currently, Mica says it is the United State’s best chance of success. “This is the only rail corridor the United States and Amtrak own, almost in its entirety. The rest of the nation’s passenger rail runs over lines owned by the freight railroads. The existing fixed transit connections and dense population over a 365-mile distance also make it the ideal location and corridor length for high-speed,” he says.

Upgrading the Northeast Corridor to high-speed rail would alleviate significant highway and airway congestion. “Approximately 75 percent of the nation’s chronically delayed flights emanate from the overcrowded airspace surrounding New York City,” Mica points out.

Mica is unimpressed by Amtrak’s attempts to effectively and efficiently develop and operate passenger rail service, despite being the exclusive intercity operator over the busiest passenger rail corridor in the United States.

“The time has come to look for an alternative to Amtrak’s monopoly over Northeast Corridor service and consider plans to bring true high speed rail service to this critical national asset. The private sector should be given the opportunity to help the United States realize the true potential of this valuable transportation asset. If our nation is going to successfully develop high-speed rail, the Northeast Corridor must be where we focus our efforts.”
Governor Rejected Projects

Mica says he supports developing cost-effective high-speed rail in regions where it makes sense. While he was encouraged initially by the Administration’s support for developing high-speed rail, he has found the implementation of the program since then disappointing.

“Instead of focusing on just a few projects with the best chance for success, limited resources were scattered among 78 projects. Seventy-six of these were slow-speed Amtrak projects for modest improvements to existing service. Private sector resources and expertise were not effectively leveraged. The one region of the country where high-speed makes the most sense, the Northeast Corridor, was essentially ignored, Mica says. “Large-scale projects that were selected were rejected by their states’ governors. The only project of the 78 with any chance of becoming a real high-speed system – the California project — is in jeopardy. I cannot imagine a worse attempt to develop this modern mode of transportation.”

Projects in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin which had been awarded money were rejected by their respective governors. According to Mica, none of these proposed projects would have resulted in a true high-speed system. “The Florida project would have met the current legal standard for high speed, but the threshold set in U.S. law is low compared to other world-class systems,” he says.

The Ohio project would have averaged only 39 mph, a far cry from true high-speed rail.

“It’s not surprising that states rejected funds for these projects,” says Mica.” While this funding will be redirected to other potential projects, we have lost some credibility with potential partners, which may make the development of high-speed rail more difficult.”

Andy Kunz, president and CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, sees it a different way. “I think they thought they were going to make a big political statement, a big anti-rail statement but all it did was piss everyone off. There are a lot of really mad people in Florida — business leaders, students, across the board the gamut of everyone and their brother is mad as hell in Florida.”
California Connection

California’s approach to planning its high-speed rail system is unique in that it isn’t guided by the state department of transportation; instead the guidelines are laid out by Proposition 1-A, which is a voter approved measure that was passed in 2008.

“It was a voter approved bond measure in 2008, and it specifically outlined where high-speed rail would connect, minimal operating times, how the system would be financed, operated, etc. It’s quite a lengthy guideline in terms of the structure behind the planning of the high-speed rail system in California,” explains California High Speed Rail Authority press secretary Rachel Wall.

The first section will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles by 2020, and the minimum operating time of the express train between the two cities will be 2 hours and 40 minutes, Wall explains. In addition, Prop 1-A also set the maximum number of stations in the state at 24. “The reason for that is if we were to exceed that number of stops, it would no longer serve as an inter-regional system it would be considered a more regional or a commuter system.”

Six months ago, the authority was directed by the Federal Railroad Administration to begin the project in the Central Valley, which includes the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield and Merced.

“In December we brought a couple of alternatives to our board of directors and the decision was made to begin construction essentially right smack dab in the middle of the central valley. In the middle of December we got another funding award of $616 million and we matched that with the state bond dollars it was over a billion, Wall explains. “We were able to extend construction to over 120 miles that connected Fresno to Bakersfield. Now, potentially with the reallocation of Florida’s funding, which we’re awaiting the award, we could extend it again. What we’ve told our board of directors and what the staff presented to them potentially with just half of Florida’s funding, we could connect from Merced down to Bakersfield, which is 180 miles.”

Currently, the California High Speed Rail Authority is in the process of compiling Draft Environmental Impact Reports for the Central Valley. Two separate impact reports will be compiled; one for the stretch of track from Merced to Fresno and the other for the stretch from Fresno to Bakersfield, Wall explains.

“It’s broken up like that because those are quite lengthy segments of geography. They had to be broken up like that so they could really be studying down to the hydrology, the biology, the cultural resources and the landmarks. They are broken up like that so that it’s feasible to get in there and really study what the impacts are and how they can be mitigated. So we have had these processes public for quite a few years.”

 Walls says they anticipate taking the environmental reports to the public for comment this summer, which will include a few public hearings that will allow people to testify. The public comments will then be delivered to the board of directors in early 2012 and they’ll make a decision on any issues that come up during the public hearings. Finally, construction packages would be put together for bid. A bid should be awarded in mid-2012 and construction would start in the fall of 2012.

Subsequently other sections, the L.A. area that is below the valley and the Bay area sections that are above will roll out shortly after. In the next two to three years after the Central Valley sections have been cleared, Wall explains.

“Looking back six months, we didn’t have a decision on where construction would begin or how we would allocate the initial funds. Looking ahead six months, we’re going to be making decisions on exactly where the tracks will be and how construction packets will be laid out and subsequently awarded,” Wall says.
Midwest Projects

Despite the rejection of funds for rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, other Midwestern states are seeing some action.” Illinois is very much in the lead and they’ve currently got the track machine out replacing the track north of Lincoln on the Chicago to St. Louis project. So that’s exciting,” says Rick Harnish, Midwest High Speed Rail Association executive director.

“They just put in an application for federal funds for Rolling stock. So the initial grant that they got covered track, signally, gate crossings and rolling stock, and most of that work’s underway. They also put in for a combined pool of equipment with Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri.”

Although Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker put in a shared bid with Illinois for upgrades to the Hiawatha line connecting Milwaukee to Chicago, it was not one of the projects awarded money in the most recent announcement.

Projects that were awarded portions of the recent $2.02 billion announced by LaHood on May 9 include the Illinois – Chicago – St. Louis Corridor. The project received $186.3 million to construct upgrades on the Chicago – St. Louis Corridor between Dwight and Joliet, Ill. with trains operating at 110 mph for more than 220 miles of track. This investment will reduce trip times, enhance safety and add more seats on the corridor, increasing the number of people who can conveniently travel by train.

The Michigan – Kalamazoo-Dearborn Service Development received $196.5 million to rehabilitate track and signal systems, bringing trains up to speeds of 110 mph on a 235-mile section of the Chicago to Detroit corridor, reducing trip times by 30 minutes.      

“The governor [of Michigan] has a vision; the same vision we have. If we are going to connect America the Midwest is integral and the Detroit to Chicago corridor is integral,” said Sec. LaHood. “The Detroit to Chicago link is critical. This will become a huge economic corridor.”

The Michigan – Ann Arbor Station Project was awarded $2.8 million for an engineering and environmental analysis to construct a new high-speed rail station in Ann Arbor that will better serve passengers and allow more than one train to serve the station simultaneously.

In Minnesota, the Northern Lights Express received $5 million to complete engineering and environmental work for establishing the Northern Lights Express – a high-speed intercity passenger service – connecting Minneapolis to Duluth, with 110-mph high-speed rail service.  

Merchant’s Bridge Replacement in Missouri received $13.5 million to advance the design of a new bridge over the Mississippi River on the Chicago to St. Louis Corridor, replacing a bridge built in the 1890s.   

The Midwest High Speed Rail Association undertaking a series of studies looking at the feasibility of a 220 mph high speed rail system for the region and clearly define this vision. Eight Midwest states have already studied upgrading existing Amtrak corridors, which share track with freight carriers, to 110- mph systems. This new initiative focuses on the 220-mph trains necessary to slash travel times to less than three hours (often two) between major cities.

According to the MHSRA, a high speed rail network in the Midwest would have 43 million annual riders from 13 cities and major metropolitan areas and would make more than $2.2 billion annually in user-generated revenues. There would be 25 daily departures on each of the four corridors, and there would be a capacity for up to 10 trains in peak hours on each corridor. The corridors would cut travel times down to 2 to 3 hours between Chicago and the farthest points of the network. According to the study, the system would cost an estimated $58 million per mile – a total of $83.6 billion

Elsewhere in the Midwest, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin signed a bill on April 21 that will establish a task force to study 80-mph passenger rail operations between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The bill (No. 1686) also calls for analysis of "high speed passenger rail service from Tulsa to Oklahoma City via public-private partnership formulas that include Department of Transportation grants and state funding allocations in conjunction with private asset contribution."

While the United States has made a number of important steps to connect the country through high speed rail, there is still more work to be done. However, LaHood says, “High speed rail is coming to America,”

Mica says transit agencies can help make high speed rail a reality in the United States by marketing their essential role in helping to establish a successful high speed rail system.

“As more metro areas are able to develop cost-effective transit systems that make   connections with other transportation modes such as airports, rail stations and intercity bus service, the potential for successful high-speed rail increases,” Mica concludes.