October 2009

State News: August 2009


State News August: The New Public Sphere

riding the rail

The U.S. may have taken the slow train when compared to the rest of the world and fast passenger train travel, but thanks to a new push for high-speed rail in the federal stimulus funds, states are jumping on the train to stimulate their own high-speed rail corridors. But the tracks ahead offer steep competition for the more than $8 billion in federal stimulus grants and leave states facing the issue of how to fund fast train travel in the long term.
By Mikel Chavers
People in the Midwest get excited.
They get excited when they talk about taking faster trains from Chicago to Cincinnati, for example. That’s because plans for high-speed trains will cut that trip in half from eight hours to four hours, according to the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.
“Rail is one of those particular issues that goes across state lines,” said Missouri Rep. Charles Schlottach.
And the benefits go across state lines.
Under the Midwest Regional Rail plan that calls for a system of railways radiating from a Chicago hub and an Ohio hub network, other Midwestern train trips will also decrease when the Midwest builds out and beefs up its passenger rail corridors for higher speeds. A trip from Chicago to St. Louis would decrease from 5 hours and 20 minutes to 3 hours and 50 minutes, according to Laura Kliewer of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a part of The Council of State Governments Midwest office, the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
The trip from St. Louis to Kansas City could drop an hour and a half in travel time, according to Kliewer.
But for the Midwestern states and many states from Florida to California, fast trips aboard fast trains are like a dream that just got started late. The idea just hasn’t taken off … yet.
But now states are competing for startup funds—the more than $8 billion in stimulus money the federal government is shelling out this year for faster train networks.
Trouble is, the stimulus only includes a limited pot of money—$8.8 billion in the first year and another $5 billion in coming years. Competing are 40 states and Washington, D.C., with grant applications for projects totaling a whopping $102.5 billion, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, much more than the funding available. Those applications include plans for more than 270 projects, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
It’s going to be competitive, Joe Szabo, an administrator with the Federal Railroad Administration said at The Council of State Governments’ Eastern Regional Conference annual meeting in August. The overwhelming response to the grants “demonstrates the pent-up demand for passenger rail service,” he said.
Stimulus Won’t Fund Everything
Even so, federal stimulus dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act won’t be enough to get the whole job done, those in the states say.
A national high-speed rail network won’t be completed under the stimulus funding, said Patrick Simmons, rail division director for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. “The recovery bill is not going to build all these systems. We understand that,” Simmons said.
The states will have to continue the effort—a process that could take years if dollars are found either through state funding or leveraging private cash through public-private partnerships. In California, for example, the first high-speed passenger service could be available at the earliest in 2015, according to Curt Pringle, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
It’s true, high-speed trains are shuttling passengers at speeds in excess of 180 miles per hour in France, Japan and Spain, and all over Europe for that matter. But the U.S. just doesn’t have that kind of fast train service.
The first phase of getting the train rolling in the U.S. is the stimulus funding.
“There needs to be a tremendous amount of public dollars invested up front,” said Pringle, who is also the mayor of Anaheim, Calif. Heretofore it’s been pretty hard to get even private companies to take on the risk of building the foundations for high-speed passenger rail, he said, without public dollars first.
“The public investment is that first step,” Pringle said. While states struggled in the past to garner funding for high-speed rail, even private companies weren’t fronting the money either. “It’s very hard to get companies saying ‘yeah we’re going to take all that risk of time, and environmental clearance and purchasing of right-of-way and all of that.’”
Consider this: The entire California system is more than $40 billion when you contemplate building it all out, Pringle said.
That said, the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s business plan is seeking federal funding, state funding, local participation and public-private partnerships, Pringle said.
Last year, California voters approved Proposition 1A, which means the state is committed to $9.95 billion in bonds to fund high-speed rail.
“So you take $9 billion worth of bonds and generous applications of federal dollars, that still doesn’t get you there; it barely gets you halfway,” Pringle said.
California also applied for the most in stimulus funding. Preapplications from the state asked for a total of $24.2 billion in stimulus funds for multiple projects.
But California, like other states seeking to build high-speed passenger rail corridors, hopes once the process gets started, funding for entire networks will come—funding that will exceed what’s available in the federal stimulus act.
“There are points at which, as you cover distances (and) as you get the volumes of passengers, our business model shows a revenue generation that comes off of the system,” Pringle said. “And with that, you can borrow against the streams of revenue, you can use those future earnings to expand the system and grow it and make sure you cover beyond that initial segment.”
For example, Japan is building a new high-speed train system that uses magnetic levitation technology where a train levitates and glides across a track using magnetics—all virtually frictionless. That new system is being funded from revenues generated from Japan’s existing high-speed train systems, Pringle said.
State officials hope something similar will happen in the Midwest to carry out an entire high-speed rail system radiating from a Chicago hub.
Take the proposed Chicago to St. Louis high-speed rail segment in the Midwest, a route Illinois is particularly focusing on.
It will cost $2.3 billion to fully build that route figuring in trains that can run up to 110 miles per hour, according to George Weber, bureau chief of the Illinois Department of Transportation Bureau of Railroads.
That price tag is to pay for upgrading track and adding more train trips—what Illinois is anticipating will be eight roundtrips a day for passengers traveling from Chicago to St. Louis, Weber said. There are currently three roundtrips subsidized by the state and two more that are a part of Amtrak’s basic system trains, Weber said.
The rest of the system will come later.
But as for a national high-speed rail network, the kind that European countries can boast about, that still is a long way off, Kliewer, of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, said.
“The states have led the way in paying for increased frequencies and creating plans for significant passenger rail improvements even when there was no federal partnership for passenger rail development,” Kliewer said.
“Yet even with all the attention it has received, and the wonderful boost of the $8 billion in stimulus funding, passenger rail is still only the only major mode of transportation that does not have a dedicated source of federal funding,” she said.
She hopes that will change in the future.


Upgrading Now, Innovating in the Future
When it comes to real innovation in building the first corridors for high-speed trains in the U.S., it seems this first phase aided by stimulus funding is more about creating foundation.
“Technically it’s just a faster train—it’s not that big of a leap in technology in itself,” said Rick Harnish, executive director of the citizens advocacy group, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. “But on the other hand, when you get to these speeds, the product is revolutionary.”
In North Carolina, high-speed rail plans focus on linking Charlotte to Washington, D.C. But making the trip shorter is first about the many baby steps, such as upgrading rail crossings and expanding areas where trains can pass each other to get trains moving faster.
North Carolina isn’t gunning for superfast train travel all at once by investing in expensive, fast technology. Instead, plans for passenger rail in the state call for average speeds of 85 miles per hour, according to Simmons. Compare that to California’s plans of a 220 mile per hour train system and the Midwest’s plans for trains traveling 110 miles per hour.
“We’re not going to get all of this in one bite,” said Simmons in North Carolina. “We can go faster, but it’s more expensive and it cost you like maybe 40 to 50 percent more to go faster and you get maybe 5 or 10 percent more riders. We’ve developed something—it doesn’t stretch the bounds of technology; it serves the marketplace well.”
Simmons said the state is instead focused on providing a foundation—raising the slowest speeds trains now travel. For example, in the segment from Charlotte to Raleigh, stimulus grant applications are for projects that would straighten track and lengthen what’s known as passing sidings, or extra tracks off to the side where a train can stop over and wait for another to pass.
Those kinds of improvements would raise the top speed from 79 miles per hour to 90 miles per hour, Simmons said. Those are all near-term plans, he said.
Other plans call for raising the slow speeds trains must travel in North Carolina by improving railroad crossing technology. In Durham, N.C., for example, trains had to slow from 59 miles per hour to 20 miles per hour and creep through the city. But thanks to improvements in railroad crossing technology, today trains can go through at 70 miles per hour, Simmons said.
So the U.S. won’t be breaking any speed records but will be upgrading train service to compete with the rest of the world.
And even though stimulus funding won’t be enough to fund an entire national network of high-speed passenger rail, it’ll be a start, state officials say.
“We’re not only building these high speed rail operations that will grow into a national network but we’re changing our transportation network,” Simmons said. “We need clear cut examples, clear cut projects that are ready to be built that demonstrate the concept.” That’s the purpose of the stimulus funding, he said.
“This is a catalyst.”
—Mikel Chavers is associate editor of State News magazine.


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