» A wait until summer 2010 before a clearer elucidation of national priorities, despite the fact that stimulus rail grants will appropriated this winter.
You’ve got to give it to the Federal Railroad Administration: it’s doing as much as possible to avoid pissing anyone off.
Though it’s been a full year since the U.S. government enacted the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) and six months since the Department of Transportation released information about its high-speed rail strategy, the FRA has managed to put together a 41-page Preliminary National Rail Plan with virtually no planning included. And that’s a big mistake.
Here’s the situation: state rail agencies have submitted applications for more than $50 billion in improvement projects. California’s citizens have approved almost $10 billion to build a 220 mph statewide train in that state, but need a federal commitment. China and virtually every other industrialized country continue to invest huge sums in serious, though-out projects of national interest.
The FRA responds with the minimalist Preliminary National Rail Plan, which is supposed to “lay the groundwork” for a final National Rail Plan due sometime next year. The report released today suggests that planners consider both freight and passenger rail, establish “projects of national significance,” “propose financing mechanisms” with the goals of increasing safety, improving the livability of communities, reducing fuel use, and expanding economic competitiveness. The final Plan “will set forth a methodology that can more accurately determine what capacity is needed and where intermodal connections need to be improved.”
But as today’s report itself admits, the Preliminary Plan “generally does not offer specific recommendations,” and that’s the crux of the problem. The United States needs to get serious about high-speed rail: we have run out of time for these generalities. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will award some eight billion dollars of funds to rail projects in a few months, but he will have no objective, realistic criteria by which to judge and compare the projects — at least publicly. This lack of process transparency is exactly the way to turn a promising investment program into something many politicians will be able to get away with calling a boondoggle.
Admittedly, the FRA has been put in somewhat of a predicament by the language of 2008’s PRIIA, which required the DOT to write this rail plan in the first place. That bill demands that the FRA “coordinate the States’ plans into a blueprint for an efficient national system, thereby meeting both regional and national goals.” In the grand tradition of U.S. federalism, we’re somehow expected to get a national plan out of a mess — and a whole bunch of conflicted interests.
Instead of moving forward with definitive statements about where investment should go — a national rail plan — the FRA will spend the next few months in meetings, hoping to convince states to update their own proposals, to coordinate, to make steps before Washington gets involved. Only then will the National Rail Plan be released; just how vague will it be?
I remain convinced that if the federal government is using its funds to develop a nationwide rail network, it must be sincere about establishing long-term objectives — not based on nebulous “goals” that everyone shares, but rather on addressing specific demands for new rail investment. Which corridors should be prioritized? Where should the fastest train services be implemented? What kind of funding responsibility will states play in the process?
Of course we’re at the beginning of this decades-long investment program, but the FRA’s unwillingness to be explicit is incredibly frustrating. Other countries do not scrupulously avoid making long-term plans. That’s why their infrastructure systems are more advanced and better maintained.
The FRA is not incompetent. Nor is it incapable of putting together a serious proposal. It just doesn’t want to seem like it’s giving preferential treatment to some areas over others. But any project of this magnitude — a national rail network — will require sacrifice. Not everyone will get rail service.
The map below shows the projects being planned for rail service improvements nationwide — it’s a sad demonstration of what happens when states, regions, and the federal government aren’t talking with one another, and when they lack an overall goal. Today’s report does nothing to clarify the situation.
Image above: Proposed U.S. rail investments, from the Preliminary National Rail Plan