Is The High Speed Rail Program At Risk?
Ever since President Obama announced his high speed rail (HSR) program initiative and Congress approved $8 billion to fund it as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009, many States have lined up to stake out a share of the new money. States that had been working on high-speed rail plans for years saw it as an opportunity to finally bring their projects to fruition, while others scrambled to get rail corridor planning underway so that they too could qualify for a share of the pie. The prize looked particularly attractive because the dollars will flow directly to the recipient states without requiring a local match.
For most states, competing for a piece of the action meant developing a plan in cooperation with the Class I freight railroads to upgrade existing infrastructure to accommodate passenger rail service at speeds higher than 79 mph. While such speeds would hardly qualify as "high-speed" in Europe and the Far East, they became the de facto threshold standard for qualifying under the HSR program. Only California and Florida have proposed construction of dedicated new track that would allow true high speeds, i.e. top speeds of 150 mph and higher (however, Florida's Tampa-to-Orlando project is expected to operate only at average speeds of 86 mph; see "Weighing the Future of High-Speed Rail in America," NewsBrief, October 29, 2009).
For the Administration, there was a political incentive to focus on the projects requiring upgrades to existing infrastructure. While the Florida and California high-speed lines will take years to complete, long after the present generation of political leaders has left office, most of the "upgrades" could become operational in a shorter time frame and become part of this Administration'sÂ catalogue of accomplishments to be proudly cited in the 2012 presidential election campaign. Major grants have been awarded for improvements in the Chicago-St.Louis, Madison-Milwaukee, Seattle-Portland, Raleigh-Charlotte and Cleveland-Cincinnati corridors. These projects typically will involve reconstructing track to meet more stringent requirements for higher speed operations, building bypass tracks, eliminating grade crossings, installing advance signal systems and implementing positive train control technology.