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With billions in new money for projects in play, a top federal railroad official is urging states to get on track ramping up rail-focused staff.
The top rail official from the Biden administration said Friday that many state transportation departments need to beef up the number and expertise of the staff they have who handle rail projects, especially as the federal government looks to expand passenger service across the country.
“It’s really important not just that cities and towns have technical capacity, but also that your state departments of transportation have a robust rail program,” Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose told a group of mayors in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve got to have that technical capacity on the rail program side,” Bose said. “Passenger rail is a specialized craft. We need to make sure we have the resources and a focus on that. It’s not the same as building roads. It’s not the same as building [bus rapid transit]. It is absolutely different.”
The 2021 infrastructure law included $66 billion that could be used to improve passenger rail throughout the country, and $36 billion of that is dedicated to partnerships with states to expand service.
But states’ prior experience with passenger rail operations varies widely. Some, like California, Illinois and Virginia, already run several routes and have expanded their network. But other states—including those in the South, and nearly everything between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains—have far less.
In a brief interview with Route Fifty, Bose said the lack of rail capacity at state transportation agencies in those areas is striking.
Those states “compartmentalize rail within the freight office or the intermodal office,” he said. “It can be a staff of one or two. Other states have dozens of staff dedicated to that. Some states rely a lot on consultants. But there’s nothing that beats having public employees that are publicly minded on staff.”
Having state employees dedicated to rail also helps to coordinate rail projects with highway and transit projects, as well as getting the governor’s office on board, Bose said.
Bose said some states have started staffing up to meet the increased demands from the infrastructure funding law. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has been encouraging its member agencies to get ready for the federal passenger rail money by building their internal capacity, he said.
He said the FRA is also willing to share models about how to build state rail expertise and to help state agencies with planning for passenger rail expansion.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.