High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan Released

President Barack Obama named 10 projects likely to receive stimulus funding and identified three funding tracks.

by / April 16, 2009

Today President Barack Obama revealed a strategic plan to accelerate the development of high-speed rail across the country. He said high-speed rail is necessary to improve the environment and reduce traffic congestion and dependence on foreign oil.

In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $13 billion for the development of high-speed rail. The Obama administration designated an additional $5 billion for it in the White House's proposed budget that will be disbursed in $1 billion increments over five years beginning with fiscal 2010.

The federal government classifies high-speed rail as trains between cities that travel at least 110 mph.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration press release, likely recipients of the funding are: California, the Pacific Northwest, south central, the Gulf Coast, the Chicago hub network, Florida, the southeast, Keystone, Empire and northern New England.

Obama wants state and local communities to create plans of 100- to 600-mile corridors, and the grants may be disbursed as early as late summer 2009.

Strategic Plan Outlines Three Funding Tracks

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the strategic plan identifies three funding tracks:

  • The individual projects track will provide grants to complete projects that have established the environmental and preliminary engineering work and emphasize near-term job creation. Eligible projects include acquisition, construction of or improvements to infrastructure, facilities and equipment.
  • The corridor programs track will fund the development of phases or geographic sections of high-speed rail corridors that have environmental documentation and a prioritized list of projects.
  • The planning track is intended to establish a structured mechanism and funding stream for future corridor development activities and will create agreements for planning activities -- like the development of state rail lines -- using nonstimulus money.

Funding Will Jump-Start Corridor Projects

In an interview with Reuters Financial Television, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the stimulus money will jump-start high-speed rail, but that financing it nationally will cost significantly more.

Some states are hoping to obtain large grants, but they won't make much of a dent in the overall cost of building a rail system. According to the California High-Speed Rail Authority's Web site, the cost of connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles through an 800-mile system will cost approximately $45 billion.

"The cost of a high-speed train is $40 billion, and that's a lot of money," Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California authority, told Government Technology in 2007. "But, over the same period of time that we're talking about building a high-speed train, California is going to spend more than $200 billion on highways and other transit modes in the state. Relative to all the other expenditures, it's not that huge of a change."

Eight Midwestern governors hope to obtain $3.4 billion of the funding to begin building the Chicago Hub Network. The group said the funds would cover Phase I, which would connect Chicago to St. Louis; Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison, Wis.; and Chicago to Detroit to Pontiac, Mich.

"I believe Missouri and the other states in our region present a compelling and united case to the Obama administration to fund these projects," said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon in a statement on April 14. "Our states have been working on this rail initiative for more than a decade, and we will aggressively compete for these recovery act funds specifically designated for high-speed rail projects."

The next deadline for the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration is June 17, when information must be released regarding guidance on how the competitive grants will be evaluated.

A Green Initiative for Transportation

According to the strategic plan, high-speed rail is among the cleanest and most energy efficient of the passenger transportation modes. Implementing the pending plans could result in an annual reduction of 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide.

Barriers to High-Speed Rail

The strategic plan outlined major barriers to building high-speed rail corridors. Some of the barriers are:

  • Lack of expertise and resources. Due to the small investment in high-speed rail, the number of experts in the industry has decreased.
  • State fiscal constraints. Many states haven't been able to continue investing in high-speed rail plans due to the current economic downturn.
  • Multistate partnerships. Many corridors will cross state boundaries and the state must create interstate compacts or agreements to successfully work together.
  • The need for high-speed rail safety standards. Current railroad safety standards are designed for conventional freight equipment, which is heavier than high-speed rail equipment. The Federal Railroad Administration has an opportunity to revise its safety approach due to changes in several regulations, including equipment, system safety, and collision and derailment prevention.


Read Public CIO Editor Tod Newcombe's blog on the need for high-speed rail.

Elaine Rundle Staff Writer