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With billions in new federal funding available, advocates see a narrow window to deliver new lines, faster trains and other ambitious upgrades. But there are plenty of difficulties that could throw their plans off the tracks.
Passenger rail advocates have waited decades for the kind of federal financial support they received in the infrastructure law that President Biden signed last year. But now, they will have only a few years to prove that the $66 billion is worth it.
“We celebrated the infrastructure bill for about a day, and then I panicked,” Jennie Louwerse, the deputy secretary of multimodal transportation for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, told a conference of high-speed rail advocates in Philadelphia on Thursday.
“Just like the National Highway Act of 1956 (which first funded the interstate highway system), this funding bill is transformational. But this is our one bite at this apple to prove we can do amazing things with this money,” she said.
Many advocates hoped that the new five-year infrastructure package would mark a turning point for passenger rail funding, much as the 1956 law led to generations of spending on building out the country’s highway network. But they know that this is not a given.
“We need to think about these next five years as if there’s not going to be another five years, because of the sense of urgency of what needs to get done,” said Nuria Fernandez, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. “We need to see these dollars of investment growing the economy, creating more jobs and getting people excited about their tax dollars going into public transportation.”
Amit Bose, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, also urged attendees to shift quickly away from the advocacy that went into securing the funds, to implementing the projects and programs the money is meant to support.
“I know that a lot of us put in a lot of effort to get to $66 billion in bipartisan infrastructure law,” he said at the conference, which was hosted by the American Public Transportation Association. “Now is time to execute. Many tend to focus on that policy part, while forgetting about delivery.”
The participants were also fully aware that changes in the political landscape could spell trouble for their favored projects. Many political experts believe Republicans are likely to take control of the U.S. House or Senate after the 2022 elections, and GOP lawmakers have been wary of passenger rail expansions and of Amtrak generally.
Now that the law is passed, government agencies are scrambling to put it in place. Much of the initial focus will be on the FRA, which will determine which corridors of passenger rail it wants to expand and improve.
The agency will have to decide how to spend billions of dollars. It can upgrade existing lines in places like the Northeast corridor, which already has relatively robust service. It can build out a few new lines. Or it can spread the money more thinly across more of the country, a move that would result in less drastic improvements but could help shore up political support for the efforts.
But the FRA is also prodding state and local officials to prepare as much as they can for funding when it comes.
The infrastructure law, for example, makes it easier for states to enter into regional compacts to govern new rail corridors. The idea is based on an alliance of three Gulf Coast states that have worked together first to deliver—and since Hurricane Katrina, to partially restore—Amtrak service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.
Local leaders can also build support among area political leaders, businesses and community groups to bolster their prospects of getting money and making sure the projects go smoothly.
The formal processes, though, can take years before states are ready to move ahead with route improvements.
An effort to add a second daily Amtrak round trip between the Twin Cities in Minnesota, through Milwaukee and onto Chicago, for example, started in 2013 and is now expected to start by 2024.
Increasing the number of passenger trains running between Milwaukee and Chicago has taken even longer, with the process beginning in 2012 and no resolution in sight, said Arun Rao, the passenger rail manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
He ticked off a long list of steps that have to occur before construction ever begins, including identifying a corridor, conducting a feasibility study, identifying infrastructure upgrades, getting cost estimates, going through environmental reviews, engaging with community members, applying for grants, and working with freight railroads (that typically own the tracks) to figure out how to implement the plan.
Rao said he hoped the new federal infrastructure law would “streamline the process” by allowing states to prepare entire corridors at once, and by providing ongoing, reliable funding to keep the planning process moving, instead of having to wait for grant applications or state appropriations to be approved.
In Washington state, there’s some new momentum to build a high-speed route between Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland, Oregon via Seattle. The Washington state Legislature recently included $150 million in a transportation package to study the concept, with the hope of attracting more federal funding.
Amy Scarton, the deputy secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the state is now at the point of starting the environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a time-consuming process that transportation officials often blame for bogging down crucial projects. “That’s what’s holding us back from accessing this wealth of new federal funding,” she said.
But there are other practical obstacles, too, because the route would cross state – and international – borders. Washington state cannot easily procure land in Canada or Oregon, so Scarton said she hoped an interstate agreement like the one on the Gulf Coast eventually could help build high-speed rail in the Pacific Northwest.
Mike Reininger, the CEO of Brightline, a passenger rail company that operates in South Florida with plans to expand to other Florida destinations and to build a line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area, said the most important thing was to give customers a tangible service with clear benefits as quickly as possible.
“Somebody has to build a system that’s new and modern. They have to get it done now; it has to be in the next four-and-a-half years,” he said. “If we aspire to something that’s so big that we talk in terms of generations, we’re going to miss the opportunity.”
But being overly ambitious can have its pitfalls, too. Public support for California’s state-funded high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles has eroded over time, as construction delays and cost overruns have dogged the effort. Construction continues in the Central Valley, with plans to eventually link the service to the Bay Area.
“The only thing I can do is perform better,” Brian Kelly, the CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, told Route Fifty. “The authority struggled for a lot of reasons. We’re doing better today than when I got there (in 2018). And we’re going to keep getting better.”
“The more we get through these early construction contracts and start showing what it’s like when we do it right, the better our performance will be. That’s the only way to improve the brand. That’s the only way to improve ‘high speed rail.’ And that’s what we’re dedicated to doing,” he said.
Kelly cautioned other participants about the missteps the California agency made early in its history, after voters approved $10 billion for the project and the Obama administration added billions more.
With enormous pressure to begin construction quickly, the agency entered into construction contracts before it completed the necessary preparations, Kelly said. In many cases, the agency had not secured the right of way it needed or relocated utilities first.
Now, the agency uses a “stage gate” process, a methodical way of ensuring that all the steps are completed along the way before construction begins.
“In a nutshell, it means don’t start before you’re ready,” Kelly said. “That way, we will not make the mistakes of the past.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.