Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Preliminary National Rail Plan – A Work In Progress?

Spurred by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Federal Railroad Administration issued a Preliminary Rail Plan in October of 2009.  The plan was an attempt at laying the groundwork for future policies regarding our nation's rail transportation network.  The plan's lofty goals included improving safety, fostering livable communities, increasing the economic competitiveness of the United States and promoting more sustainable modes of transportation.  What the plan didn’t offer were specifics as to how to achieve these goals.  With the ARRA allocating $48 billion towards transportation funding, and $8 billion designated specifically for high-speed rail4, why does it appear that little action has been taken thus far? 

The Preliminary Rail Plan identified transportation corridors to target for improvement, and multiple states put their names in the running for a portion of the stimulus money.  To date, funding has been distributed to thirty-one states, with the largest grants going to California ($2.3 billion) and Florida ($1.25 billion).  A major drawback right now seems to be that states must raise additional funds, through tax increases or budget cuts, as the federal funding alone isn’t enough to subsidize their projects.  And given the current state of the economy, that drawback alone could be enough to kill transportation plans in some areas.

Another concern is the apparent lack of prioritization in identifying projects worthy of funding. The Florida project for example, would serve the Orlando-Tampa corridor, one not considered particularly viable for high speed rail due to the relatively short distance between the cities, the high number of intermediate stops along the route, and the lack of effective transit connections at either end.

Notwithstanding basic concerns about planning and financing, opinions differ substantially on how to best bring our nation's rail system up to twenty-first century standards.  Is it more economical to upgrade existing rail lines, or should we build brand new high-speed lines dedicated solely to passenger travel?  Our current rail network was largely in place by the end of the 19th Century. The system we now have was built in favor of freight rail and it’s slower speeds, and even with extensive retrofits, experts estimate that high-speed passenger trains on retrofitted tracks would run on average between 80 and 120 miles per hour, with speeds topping out in some locations around 160 miles per hour.  In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail lines have their own dedicated tracks and with improved construction techniques, the trains are easily capable of running over 200 miles per hour.

Additionally, infrastructure is typically shared between freight and passenger rail lines.  Freight railroads have historically been privately owned, and since their deregulation in 1980 have proven to be profitable businesses.  Passenger railroads on the other hand, provide a public service and are publicly subsidized by taxpayers.  Currently, most passenger service utilizes rail infrastructure owned and operated by the freight railroads.  So should those private companies benefit from infrastructure improvements paid for by tax dollars, or should they share in the cost?  Or does our current shared infrastructure reinforce the idea that passenger service should be provided on dedicated lines, removed from freight service?  One possible model is Chicago’s CREATE program, a partnership of public agencies and private railroads with the stated mission of solving the problems of both passenger (primarily commuter) and freight congestion in the nation’s rail hub, through investment of targeted improvements including grade separations, line section and signal improvements, etc.

The fact remains that even a sum of money to the tune of $48 billion falls short of upgrading our entire existing rail infrastructure and woefully short of providing gleaming brand-new high speed lines throughout the country.  Thus, the government has allowed individual states to strategize how to best use available funding.  California aims to spend $2.25 of their appropriated $2.3 billion on a new dedicated high speed line connecting northern and southern portions of the state.  Meanwhile, Midwestern states such as Missouri and Illinois prefer to upgrade their existing lines with hopes of incrementally improving service.  Only time will tell which tactic does the better job of fostering sustainable, livable communities and making rail travel more economically viable for the majority of Americans.


Post a Comment