Intermetropolitan Passenger Rail: Considerations for State Legislatures

April 9, 2010

In his remarks to a special committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Robert Puentes argues that American high speed rail represents the kind of potentially game changing, market-shaping investments in the next economy that the country has long deferred.

Since its inception, the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program has used innovative research and policy ideas, as well as close working relationships with corporate, civic, and political leaders, to advance systemic reforms that empower metropolitan areas to compete and prosper in the new century. As we engage with elected officials on the state level few new ideas have generated as much interest an enthusiasm as America’s high speed passenger rail program.

This program was given a tremendous boost last January with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). That law dedicated $8 billion to jump start a new high speed rail network and is one of the clearest examples of how the stimulus package—for all its flaws and business-as-usual approaches—really did introduce a few bits of true program creativity.

Clearly there is palpable demand as the high speed rail program has been hugely over-subscribed by state and local applicants who are clamoring for new approaches. For the $8 billion in grants, the federal government received $102 billion in pre-applications and $55 billion in final applications. In the end, 38 projects were awarded to 31 states, with most funds flowing to 13 specific corridors. Annual appropriations in the FY 2010 and FY 2011 budgets will augment the federal investment.

These are the kind of game changing, market-shaping investments in the next economy that we have long deferred. The United States operates in a fiercely competitive world where established nations like Germany and rising nations like China, India, and Brazil are moving forward. These and other countries are making seismic and ultimately transformative investments in rail, and other kinds of infrastructure such as renewable energy, modern ports, and metropolitan transit.

Yet while the high speed rail effort is a national program, it is important to note that this is not representative of the late 20th century federalism model in transportation with the federal government providing resources that rain down unencumbered to the state and metropolitan level. Rather, what we’re seeing is a new 21st century model that challenges our nation’s state and metropolitan leaders to develop deep and innovative approaches to solve the most pressing transportation problems. (Indeed, unlike the earlier high speed rail grants the latest round of funding requires a state/local match.)

With that in mind, I would like to offer the following points to frame the major questions and decisions that state legislators should consider as we move our transportation system into a new era.

First, while interest in superfast bullet trains is strong, between many metropolitan areas the initial focus should be simply on getting to regular, reliable, and competitive passenger rail service. Of the 13 corridors that received the initial $8 billion in federal investment, only the California and Florida projects represent the kind of service many consider to be high speed rail.

For that reason the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) near-term investment strategy takes an iterative approach. There are the investments in high speed express trains between metropolitan areas 200–600 miles apart with few intermediate stops and top speeds greater than 150 mph. Tracks are grade-separated and not shared. The Tampa-Orlando project is intended to reach 168 mph in this fashion and California’s plan is for speeds up to 220 mph. Other FRA grants will work to develop emerging and regional service operating speeds up to 90–110 mph and 110–150 mph respectively, on either shared or dedicated track. The Northeast Corridor’s Acela is an example of the former and the planned Chicago—St. Louis line of the latter.

But for many other parts of the country the policy is to upgrade reliability and service on conventional intercity rail services operating at top speeds probably around 80 mph. This covers most of the other Amtrak service that exists in the U.S. today. The overall strategy appears to be “walk before you run” and is consistent with the approach in other countries such as France.

Therefore, in order to get to reliable passenger rail service relatively minor augmentations may be just as important as major capacity improvements. This is especially true as a preparation for high speed investments. For example, while the long term vision for the Portland-Seattle corridor is true high speed service, in the interim the two states are focusing on smaller investments with short term returns in order to reduce travel time, improve on-time performance, and enhance safety.

Such projects include bypass tracks, grade separations, upgrades to electronic signals, technology improvements to the trains, and upgrades to stations and other passenger areas. These are not necessarily the kind of projects in front of which officials like cutting ribbons, but they are critical to building institutional support, and building a reliable network for the future. It is also important to move forward with environmental review and preliminary engineering exercises in order to prepare projects for construction. One thing the Florida project had going for it was that it was relatively shovel-ready in that key procedural hurdles have been cleared.

The next point is that if a particular corridor extends beyond individual state borders, close coordination—both formal and informal—with your neighbors is essential. More than just backroom deals, these are lengthy relationships that bear real fruit in the form of finalized plans, environmental reviews, and dedicated shared funding agreements. This appeared to have been a significant advantage for those who received ARRA funding and a hindrance for those who did not as, by design, several of the award-winning corridors involved multi-state compacts.

For example, the eight-state Midwest Regional Rail Initiative was established as far back as the mid-1990s. In consultation with the federal government, the states worked to develop a rail plan that was released in 1998 and updated in 2004. Last summer, the eight governors, along with the mayor of Chicago, signed a Memorandum of Understanding in anticipation of joint applications for ARRA funding that laid out plans for collective high-speed rail priorities and planning. Partly as a result, the projects in and around the Chicago hub received nearly as much funding ($2.16 billion) as did California ($2.34 billion.)

Similarly, the Virginia-North Carolina Interstate High-Speed Rail Commission, created in 2001, agreed to recommend to its respective parent legislatures the enactment of an interstate rail compact. Both state legislatures passed laws establishing the Compact in 2004. The North Carolina—Virginia corridor received a total of $620 million spread among three investments.

At the same time, several of those that missed out on awards did not have their multistate houses in order. For example, the corridor connecting Southern California with metropolitan Las Vegas suffered from having no dedicated funding and two competing alternatives. A southeastern agreement for a plan to connect Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina was formed only weeks before the announcement. New England’s multi-state vision for high speed rail has been described as merely an aggregation of disconnected projects, rather than a coordinated campaign.

Lastly, state legislators need to understand the importance of merits and measures when it comes to new federal transportation initiatives like the national high speed rail program. This is not a legacy program that has languished in the bureaucratic halls of the transportation department or one that was earmarked to death by Congress. Rather these funds were designed to be awarded on a competitive basis. States sent in requests for the grants and those applications were evaluated based on quantitative metrics including economic, social, and sustainability benefits. Projects also had to be far enough along in their development, take advantage of innovative technology, and promote a range of public and private partnerships.

This is nothing short of a sea change for how Washington thinks about infrastructure investments. Look no further than the Florida high speed rail project as an example. While many eyebrows were raised when that project was announced, the corridor hits a couple key conditions laid out by the U.S. DOT. It is relatively “shovel ready” in that key environmental impact assessments and other procedural hurdles have been cleared. It leverages private sector funds as the Disney Corporation donated $25 million in land for one of the station locations and a private partner, not the state, will assume the risk of ridership revenue to cover the costs of the system.

Making sure these investments are made in the best possible projects is critical. One lesson our European competitors have taught us is that it is important to get the initial investment right. Then demand for additional investments increases, political and public support follows, and the national system is built incrementally. State legislators have a primary role in that.