Director of Infrastructure points to lack of true strategic plan.
Today at a hearing in the U.S. Senate, General Accounting Office Government Accountability Office Director of Physical Infrastructure Susan Fleming described her concerns about the government’s distribution of high-speed rail funds. She focused on the Federal Railroad Administration’s unwillingness thus far to lay out specific goals for American fast train strategy and argued that the Department of Transportation must establish a coordinated, long-term plan for providing funds. Meanwhile, Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman and Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo continued to mistakenly argue that U.S. plans match those of European countries.
Ms. Fleming’s statement comes three months after the release of GAO’s major report on high-speed rail, which advocated a major federal investment in the transportation mode. Emphasizing that that report pushed the DOT to pinpoint specific goals for rail improvement, Ms. Fleming argued that the Obama Administration’s actions so far were little more than a “vision,” rather than “a strategic plan.” The U.S. must “define goals for investing in high speed rail,” she said, and describe “how these investments will achieve them, how the federal government will determine which corridors it could invest in, [and] how high speed rail investments could be evaluated against possible alternative modes in those corridors.” Ms. Fleming said that the FRA largely agreed with her opinions. In fact, DOT has been planning to release a draft national rail plan by mid-October; however, that is a month after the FRA will release initial stimulus bill grants to applicant projects for rail investment.
Mr. Szabo, the head of the FRA, said that U.S. plans were similar to those already achieved in Europe. Yet the U.S. government has yet to commit to even one high-speed corridor, nor has it established a reliable and objective framework for national planning.
Mr. Boardman, meanwhile, claimed that “With high-speed rail, speed is not the issue. Convenience and trip times are.” This rhetoric is dangerous on several counts. For one, it will allow the U.S. to distribute funds to projects that are ill-suited to high-speed rail, but which are politically popular. The Senate’s strong rural bent means that unworthy projects may be given the green light ahead of more valuable ones if the DOT’s guidelines for resource distribution aren’t based on projected passenger ridership and cost effectiveness.
Second, the repeated claim that speed “doesn’t matter” may result in less-than-popular completed projected. It is worth again mentioning what I wrote yesterday: if the U.S. doesn’t get high-speed rail right the first time, it may be decades before the mode is politically acceptable enough to promote again. The Obama Administration has a rare opportunity to advance a major train investment program, but it’s digging a hole in ignoring the reality that trip times can only be significantly reduced to compete with air travel if speed is increased dramatically. While improving train lines to maximum 110 mph operation would be helpful, people are not going to switch in droves to rail travel unless trains are averaging much higher travel speeds.
Ms. Fleming’s statement, then, is a wakeup call to the DOT, which should push forward a proactive plan for rail investment in America — before October, before any grants are distributed. We need to know more about how high-speed rail is going to work in the U.S. before the shovel hits the ground.