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Opinion: High-speed rail grants favor the prepared

(The following column by James McCommons appeared on the Huffington Post website on February 9, 2010. He is the author of “Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service — A Year Spent Riding Across America.”)

It's no surprise that only a handful of states were awarded the $8 billion in stimulus rail grants awarded last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation rail. Thirty-two states applied with requests totaling $50 billion, but the truth is few states are ready for rail money. Most DOTs and legislatures have little rail expertise or actionable plans.

Until recently, rail didn't leverage federal dollars. If a state wanted to add a lane to a freeway, it was eligible for an 80 percent federal match. But if it wanted to enhance an existing Amtrak service or create a new rail corridor between its cities, it got zero federal dollars. Still a few states began investing anyway, realizing that if they wanted more passenger service, they would have to create it themselves.

Washington put $100 million into the Amtrak Cascades between Portland and Seattle, purchasing European-styled coaches from Spain. Wisconsin subsidizes the Hiawatha service running six times a day between Milwaukee and Chicago. It plans an extension to Madison. Illinois will soon have 110 mph Amtrak service between Springfield and St. Louis. North Carolina owns a 317-mile corridor between Charlotte and Morehead City where it's rehabbing historic stations. Maine subsidizes the Downeaster between Boston and Portland and wants to extend the service north to Brunswick

But California's efforts dwarf all. In the past 20 years, it invested $2.2 billion, purchased right of way, laid track, designed its own fleet of intercity trains, and created a network of feeder buses and light rail that extends Amtrak service to 80 percent of its residents.

And in 2008, California voters passed a $10 billion bond act to start construction on a 200 mph bullet train from San Diego through the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco. The 800-mile system will take 20 years to build and eventually cost $40 billion, but in that time California expects to add another 20 million people. The alternative is another 2,000 miles of freeway and a significantly expanded air capacity.

These rail-savvy states also have established working relationships with the big freight railroads who own nearly all the nation's intercity rail infrastructure. Amtrak may operate over a 22,000 mile network, but it owns a mere 700 miles of track, mainly the Northeast corridor, which is one reason why its limited resources have been concentrated there.

The freights, also known as the "host railroads", and Amtrak have had an uneasy, if not antagonistic, relationship since 1971 when Congress set up Amtrak to relieve the railroads of their money-losing passenger operations. It was a bailout that saved many railroads from insolvency. And while the freights prospered through deregulation and consolidation (there are now just seven major railroads), Amtrak has limped along, underfunded and unappreciated.

The investment decisions and the build-out of high speed rail routes will be driven by the states and federal government, the same way they planned and constructed the interstate highway system. Only government can referee the relationship between the freights and the passenger entities and produce the legislation and funding to ensure cooperation. The USDOT has, for the first time, begun to develop a national rail plan--which is mostly visionary in nature, but represents serious thinking. The Federal Railroad Administration is moving beyond its traditional role of regulation and safety to become a promoter of rail transportation as part of a cleaner 21 century economy.

Trains are green -- even the diesel-powered trains that dominate the United States. Intermodal trains loaded with double-stacked, shipping containers are far more efficient than trucks in moving goods. The rights of ways are already there, often containing a single track where there were once two or three. Rail beds abandoned and turn into biking and walking trails could be reactivated. And if we build hybrid locomotives and eventually extend electrification of the infrastructure beyond the Northeast Corridor -- pulling that power from wind, solar and other cleaner energy sources -- the energy and carbon savings will be significant.

Transportation accounts for 28 percent of Americas energy usage and 40 percent of carbon emissions. If the world really is moving into an age of constraint where energy is no longer cheap and carbon must be limited, then rail will be critical to the country's economic future. It's absurd to believe we can have an effective transportation system to move goods and people that is dependent only on highways and air. With the prospect of adding a 100 million more citizens by 2040, the United States has to have alternatives.

It will take decades of investment to accomplish. What America needs now are demonstration projects -- outside the Northeast Corridor -- that clearly show the efficacy of rail because Americans will gladly ride these trains as long as the service is frequent and dependable.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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