California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail

California Planners Recommend Fresno-Hanford for First Phase of State’s High-Speed Line

» Choice of the Central Valley for the initial corridor suggests a serious commitment to full build-out of the California system.

If there were ever a time to question the future of the American high-speed rail project, this may well be it: Republicans in Congress have threatened to reduce transportation spending, several states have backed away from previous commitments to projects that once seemed set in stone, and a couple of already funded projects are likely to be canceled.

And yet California is steaming ahead, its new Governor Jerry Brown a strong supporter of the $45 billion state high-speed rail project and its rail authority endowed with billions of dollars in state and federal funds to advance the scheme. What has always been a long shot is coming to appear increasingly realistic, despite the difficulties that must still be surmounted before the full 520 miles fast train network is in place.

The commitment of both California and the federal government to the project was solidified this week with the announcement by the rail authority that its engineers had selected a 65-mile route in the Central Valley to begin construction roughly between Fresno and Hanford, where two stations will be built. This choice makes clear that the state assumes that the entire line will be constructed, since other sections of the full corridor arguably have more independent utility.

The recommendation will be considered in full by the rail authority on December 2nd when the final decision will be made, but in all likelihood this corridor will be the first constructed. It could be ready for intercity rail service by 2017. To make clear just how much of a service improvement this project will offer, consider this: The current Amtrak San Joaquin service between Fresno and Bakersfield completes the 113 mile run in just over two hours; the fast train link will reduce it to just 37 minutes. (Only about half of that corridor will be completed thanks to the dollars being dispensed here.)

Other corridors under consideration for the first $4.3 billion in expenditures included the routes between San Francisco and San Jose; Fresno and Merced; and Los Angeles and Bakersfield. But in awarding California some $715 million for the project last month, the Federal Railroad Administration made clear that it wanted its dollars spent on the Central Valley. This left the state with virtually no choice but to pick a segment between Bakersfield and Merced.

The advantage of this route is that it confirms that the rail authority’s mission really is to complete the whole project. As CEO Roelof van Ark noted,

“Starting here gives us flexibility to build in either direction – north and west to the Bay Area or south to Los Angeles – as more federal dollars become available. The funding other states are sending back to Washington – if redirected to California – would allow us to extend initial construction all the way to Bakersfield.”

Indeed, by choosing to concentrate in the state’s hinterlands rather than its urban centers, it is emphasizing the fact that high-speed rail is above all about intercity connections. Had the money been used in a place where it could have been used for local commuter rail in the interim before construction of the whole line, there might have been little motivation to move forward with a political push for more money to complete the project. And this route will also feature the highest speeds in the system at 220 mph, not true of other sections. It will be a showpiece.

Of course, the choice of the Fresno-Hanford route comes with a number of risks, mostly related to the potential future lack of funding. If Congress fails to authorize future funds for the project, California will be stuck with a route between a mid-size city and a small one. Links to the economic powerhouses of the state — in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego — and even to the state capital in Sacramento will not be available. And that may make the project less visible and therefore less of a long-term goal for the state’s political and economic leaders. It may be easier to promote a scheme in a dense urban zone that clearly demands improved transportation than one that some Republicans are surely going to start labeling the “bullet train to nowhere” by the time the holiday break is over.

Nevertheless, the rail authority notes that it expects to have about $150 million left over from the total expenditures to spend on connections to the existing Amtrak route if necessary; this would at least allow the San Joaquin trains to speed through this segment more quickly. Moreover, the state has an additional $5 billion of its own money to eventually be devoted to the rail project; these funds could theoretically be liberated for more construction even without federal dollars in the future (the current law requires them to have a 50-50 match from other sources to be spent).

Most importantly, momentum is on this project’s side. The election of Mr. Brown to the governorship and the state’s strongly pro-high speed rail delegation in the U.S. Senate and House means that there will be continued support for the program over the next several years. On Thanksgiving, that’s something to give thanks for.

Image above: Map of the initial route segment, from California High-Speed Rail Authority

California High-Speed Rail DOT High-Speed Rail

DOT Releases Second Round of High-Speed Rail Grants, Bringing Good News to California

» In the shadow of the coming elections, California’s large commitment to its rail program continues to be rewarded by Washington; a focus on the Central Valley encourages long-term thinking about the state’s future train network.

Nine months after allocating $8 billion to intercity rail projects across the nation, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced an additional $2.5 billion in investments designed to encourage the spread of rail passenger transportation. Unlike the first expenditures, these funds do not come from President Obama’s early 2009 stimulus but rather from the FY 2010 budget. Though the FY 2011 budget may also include funding for this mode of transportation, that spending has yet to be agreed upon by the Congress, making today’s announcement the last definite federal distribution of rail dollars.

Each state receiving funds will for the first time be required to contribute its own funds to its respective project. The DOT has asked for 20% or more to be covered locally. The list of projects shows a distribution of funding spread across the country, though many of the states have received only relatively small planning funds so far.

As I discussed earlier this week, the decision by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to devote $800 million to the Tampa-Orlando high-speed corridor indicates that the government expects to use this Florida line as a model for the rest of the country once it opens as early as 2015. Now that funds have been allocated, it appears that were he to win, once-skeptical Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott may not be such an opponent as he once suggested, indicating that this project is highly likely to move forward no matter who wins next week’s election. The Democratic candidate, Alex Sink, is a strong supporter.

Yet the $715 million to be spent on California’s Central Valley high-speed line is of more consequence for the future of the country as a whole, since it will form the central element of the nation’s fastest and most comprehensive set of fast train corridors. When including the $2.25 billion the state received in January for the program and the $10 billion voters approved in 2008, the state now possesses enough funding to begin construction on a large segment of the planned 700-mile network — though the full $45 billion, 220 mph program is far from being completed.

The federal government’s decision to allocate specifically to the Central Valley corridor between Bakersfield and Merced suggests that Washington hopes to grow the fast train system from the center, out. In the first round of grants, the government failed to pinpoint exactly where it wanted California to begin construction — so the rail authority is currently evaluating where to spend those initial funds. Now that a large amount of money has been earmarked specifically for the Central Valley, the state should think seriously about investing most of its funds there for now. Unlike the San Francisco Bay alignment to the north and the route through the greater Los Angeles area, the Central Valley line has encountered little resistance from locals, so its completion could come more quickly. Showing that the state can move forward with actual construction, instead of simply more planning, would be a good move politically.

The large lead Democrat Jerry Brown has taken in the California governor’s race is good news for California’s project, since his Republican opponent Meg Whitman has repeatedly suggested that the state cannot afford high-speed rail for now.

Three slower-speed routes have also been granted major funds from Washington: $230 million for a new connection between Chicago and Iowa City; $158 million for upgrades on the line between Dearborn and Kalamazoo in Michigan; and $121 million for a link between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Each of these states will benefit from substantially improved service standards on these intercity rail lines, though none of them will be getting true high-speed rail in the foreseeable future.

Connecticut’s award is lower than the $220 million the state asked for and arguably unfairly small considering that the legislature has agreed to pay for almost half the costs of the project, a larger percentage than any other state except California. But the DOT is likely assuming that the Congress will decide to allocate increasing funds to intercity rail in the next budget and in the future transportation reauthorization bill; Connecticut seems likely to be one of the first recipients to complete the funding portfolio of an important extension of the Northeast Corridor.

The U.S. Invests in High-Speed Rail, Round Two
StateAwards in HSR II (m$)Awards in HSR I (m$)Total AwardsNew Projects Funded in HSR II
California898.123443242.1Central Valley HSR
Illinois3.712351238.7New bridges Chicago-Milwaukee
Washington30.8590620.8King St/Tukwila Stations;Seattle-Vancouver
North Carolina23.2545568.2Charlotte Station; New bridge
Iowa2300230Chicago-Iowa City
New York26.5151177.5New crossovers; signal poles
Connecticut120.940160.9New Haven-Springfield
Northeast Corridor13.3112125.31.5 miles new track; New bridge
Minnesota40040St Paul Depot
Missouri3.63134.6Downtown St Louis rail
Oregon4812Portland-Eugene; Union Station
California High-Speed Rail Finance France High-Speed Rail

Finding an Appropriate Role for PPPs in the Infrastructure-Creation Process

» California seems certain to leverage private funds for its $40 billion-plus high-speed rail project. But just how much can it demand from for-profit sources? And who will benefit?

Too often, the opposition of American conservatives to increased investment in intercity rail appears to based on little more than denial. Today’s op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle by Liam Julian is a case in point: The research fellow at the Hoover Institution puts in doubt the California High-Speed Rail Authority‘s plan to raise $12 billion from private investors to cover about a quarter of the $43 billion cost of the initial Anaheim-Los Angeles-San Francisco line.

Flip a few pages over, and you’ll find a dueling op-ed from Oliver Hauck, president of Siemens Mobility USA articulating his own company’s interest in accepting “some of the risk inherent in financing this major upgrade to the American transportation system” through a public-private partnership (PPP). Mr. Hauck’s no hack — similar excitement about contributing private sector funds to the project have come from French railroad operator SNCF and JR Central, one of Japan’s preeminent carriers.

The decision this week by the French track owner RFF to award a 50-year concession to contractor VINCI to build, manage, operate, and maintain the planned Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line provides evidence that the private sector is quite willing to commit significant capital to the construction of new fast train projects. The 300 km French project will reduce travel times between Paris and Bordeaux (about 350 miles) to just over two hours from three hours today and will cost €7.2 billion (about $10 billion) to build. A quarter of costs will be covered by the national government using France’s relance (stimulus) funds and another quarter has been contributed by affected regions and cities.

The other half of construction costs will comes from VINCI, which has made the commitment in return for the right to collect track fees on high-speed TGVs using the line. The company clearly thinks the investment is a profitable proposition on a long-term timetable. The Sud Europe Atlantique project becomes one of the largest PPPs in Europe ever. It will likely attract three million additional annual riders between Paris and Bordeaux (from around 16 million today) once the corridor opens for service in 2016. The existing line will be opened to increased commuter and freight rail services.

RFF plans similar partnerships for the other three high-speed lines it will advance to the construction phase over the next few years: the 2nd phase of the Est-Européene line, completing the Paris-Strasbourg link; a bypass around Nîmes and Montpellier, eventually speeding trains to Barcelona; and the Bretagne-Pays de la Loire corridor, linking Brittany to the national network.

Still think California’s planned $12 billion private-sector contribution is so unreasonable, Mr. Julian?

California and other American states will be able to develop significant private-sector interest in aiding the construction of what have proven to be money-making projects worldwide.

But what’s not being adequately discussed is whether the involvement of the private sector in high-speed rail projects is a safe bet, and whether it will produce beneficial consequences for the population as a whole.

The assumptions made by those advocating private-sector involvement seem relatively solid at face value: the public sector lacks adequate funds because of decreasing tax revenue; businesses are theoretically more creative and will reduce delays; by moving line construction, operations, and maintenance to a third party, you eliminate some of the political aspects of any government-funded project; and risks inherent in any such major program can be transferred away from the taxpayer.

Problematically, however, many of those assumptions have been proven false in the real world.

In both Taiwan and the United Kingdom, private infrastructure firms managing the construction of new high-speed lines have gone broke because of their reliance on loans taken out at high rates, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill on both line construction and loan back-payments. All the “creativity” in the world bulging from the minds of entrepreneurs didn’t save the people of either of those countries any money compared to what they would have gotten from a fully public operation. In each of those cases, the “risk” supposedly assumed by private corporations was dumped back onto the public sector because you don’t put billions of dollars in a high-speed rail program and then simply throw it away when private funds evaporate.

At least you shouldn’t.

It could be argued that governmental entities can manage infrastructure funding more effectively because they’re able to take out loans at much lower interest rates. This power could be expanded if the U.S. Congress establishes a national infrastructure bank, as has been recently suggested. A fully public operation would allow taxpayers to get some of their investment back through operational revenues; by contracting out a PPP, those profits will all go into the hands of corporations and their shareholders.

Just as important, by moving profit into the private sector, the government entity providing the majority of financing for a line’s construction loses some of its leverage over the project. This makes it difficult to articulate social equity goals in execution. The French example is quite useful from this perspective: by charging low fares from the start made possible because operations were run by a non-profit governmental entity, TGV services were able to build ridership quickly and ensure that high-speed rail is a travel option available to everyone.

Yet if profit is the primary motivator in high-speed operations, the possibility of low fares may thrown out the window. The California Authority has compared ridership and revenues in scenarios with fares set at both 50% and 83% of airline ticket prices; lower train fares would attract almost twenty million more annual passengers than would higher prices — but profit would be slightly lower. Some have suggested thus that the Authority choose bigger profits over higher ridership, with the presumption that private investors would be more attracted to the program if they could gain more from it.

But prioritizing profits has many negative side-effects apart from the loss of generalized mobility made possible with low fares: those twenty million potential riders unwilling to pay big money to ride the system will choose air and road alternatives instead of the train and produce increasing congestion and air pollution. Is that an acceptable trade-off?

Nevertheless, if managed correctly, a public-private partnership on the scale of what California is suggesting could be implemented without many negative consequences, especially if the role of the for-profit side of the equation is limited as much as possible. Facing enormous debt trouble, California has little maneuvering room to increase its bonding capacity beyond the $10 billion already committed to the project; meanwhile, the corridor is competing with projects across the country for very limited federal funds.

Getting the PPP process right, though, is vitally important.

A potential compromise would be to focus private involvement on the real estate side of the equation. The residents of California are wealthy, and the state could make billions by selling off development rights for land surrounding stations. Limited private investment in the line itself could mean a diversion of some, but not all, profit away from the public sector, leaving room to fulfill non-profit-oriented goals.

We can’t discard this unique opportunity in a business give-away.

Image above: California High-Speed Rail train, altered version from that produced by state high-speed rail authority

Bay Area California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail Metro Rail

Crossing the Bay Again — But Not Necessarily with BART

» A Geary Boulevard heavy rail line could dramatically improve transportation in San Francisco. Yet connecting it to the regional network wouldn’t require using — and perhaps shouldn’t use — BART technology.

The dream for a Geary Boulevard rail line connecting downtown San Francisco to the Richmond neighborhood to its west has been around for decades — at least since 1961 when a proposal for a line to Marin County was being considered. In the early 1970s, it appeared that the project could be complete by 1980 and serve as the first extension of what was then the new BART rapid transit system; another study in 1974 indicated the possibility of extending the light rail Muni Metro along the street. Yet it was not to be.

As the Bay Area plans for its future growth, the project may well be worth reconsidering. Building it in coordination with a new Transbay Tube for California High-Speed trains could save costs and make the proposal a reality.

As costs rose over the years, the possibility for a full-scale Bay Area rapid transit system, especially one focusing on serving San Francisco’s urban core, fell apart. In recent years, the city has invested considerable sums in the creation of the new light rail Muni Metro line along Third Street to underserved Bayview and will soon begin building an extension into Chinatown called the Central Subway; Marin and Somona Counties are planning a new DMU commuter line that will connect to a ferry, having abandoned expensive plans for a direct rail connection into the region’s core; meanwhile, the South Bay is planning to spent billions of dollars on an expansion of BART to San Jose.

In the meantime, San Francisco’s Richmond community has been generally ignored, despite the fact that buses running along Geary Boulevard through the center of the neighborhood carry more than 100,000 daily commuters, making them some of the heaviest-used in North America. Development along the corridor is pretty dense, and there are plenty of land plots ready for redevelopment. The city is planning a relatively cheap bus rapid transit program on the street, but that line won’t do much to speed up the travel of the area’s hundreds of thousands of commuters nor will it connect them directly with other destinations in the greater Bay Area. To put it simply, Geary Boulevard demands a subway rapid transit line linked to the regional network.

In fact, planners have been bringing up the plans for years, usually as an extension of a new BART line running in a second Transbay Tube. The existing BART line between San Francisco and Oakland is operating at capacity, meaning that the Geary corridor simply couldn’t act as a spur from the Market Street main line. But the need to build a new downtown San Francisco line provides a new opportunity to connect the planned Transbay Transit Center to the Bay Area’s transit system and it opens the possibility of running high-speed and commuter trains from San Francisco to Oakland in a shared tunnel. Coordinating the Transbay Center, a Geary Subway, and the new Transbay Tube would produce a program of regional interest and save costs in the long term by merging several construction projects in one.

Using BART technology along the line would require building a four-track tube under the San Francisco Bay: BART trains run on track with a wider gauge than that planned for California High-Speed Rail and used by Caltrain; they also use a third rail power source, versus the overhead catenary planned for the other trains.

Though any new Transbay Tube — which would have to be more than three miles long — would cost billions of dollars, requiring that it be four-tracked would raise the price exponentially, making it all the more unlikely to be built. But there’s a solution: the new Geary line doesn’t have to use existing BART technology and instead could use off-the-rack traditional trains compatible with the high-speed trains. This would allow transit planners to build just two new tracks under the Bay and improve cost efficiencies by ensuring a full-capacity use of the new line. Rapid transit trains using the same tracks as high-speed and Caltrain trainsets could provide just as high of a frequency, reliability, and speed as BART.

A 5.85-mile route under Geary Boulevard, running to 33rd Avenue in Outer Richmond, might include 8 stations, including one at Transbay. Though some previous proposals had indicated the possibility of running the line partially along an elevated structure, the line would have to be built in a subway for the sake of satisfying neighborhood concerns. Fortunately, modern automated boring machines have cheapened the cost and reduced the environmental side-effects of tunneling.

Integrated into the Downtown Extension project, which will bring Caltrain (and high-speed rail) from its existing terminus and 4th and King Streets to the new Transbay Center, the new Geary Line would have a direct link to regional connections. At a new station near Union Square, the corridor could offer connections to BART’s Powell or Montgomery Stations; similarly, it would have a direct link there with the Central Subway and T-Third Street Muni Metro Service.

Once the new Geary Line crosses the Bay, a new station at Alameda Point would connect with a huge redevelopment zone on the site of a former naval base. Then, running north in a new 4.45-mile tunnel under Oakland’s Cypress Street, the line could connect directly to BART at West Oakland, where massive neighborhood reconstruction is a possibility. Though West Oakland is relatively low density, the surrounding industrial zones are likely to be replaced by housing during the next few decades, requiring better public transportation.

Caltrain trains would be diverted 1.6 miles east along the existing rail line to Oakland’s Jack London Station, where they would terminate and offer connections to Amtrak trains. High-speed trains could continue running north and south along the East Bay, using the existing Amtrak corridor.

To save costs, the new Geary line, existing the new Oakland tunnel, would connect to the existing Capitol Corridor rail line used by Amtrak and run 4.75 miles along the west side of Emeryville and Berkeley, finally reconnecting to BART at El Cerrito Plaza via a 0.8-mile tunnel under Albany Hill Park. The service could also be continued north for 3.75 miles to Richmond, again along the existing Capitol Corridor, where another BART link-up is possible. The areas reached by this line are about a mile and a half from existing BART stations and are of moderate, though increasing, density. The new line would open up a large new area of the region to direct access to the San Francisco core, increasing transit ridership and encouraging development.

There are several drawbacks to this expensive proposal: one of the purposes of a new Transbay Tube would be to reinforce the existing one and serve as a temporary replacement in case of failure or maintenance. By eliminating BART trains from the tunnel, that possibility is limited, though an easy transfer at West Oakland could work almost as well. Meanwhile, the lack of interconnectivity with BART means a required switch of lines for travelers trying to use the new Geary line.

One could also make the argument that the most suitable areas in Oakland for new transit are further inland — but building there, versus along an existing rail line ringing the Bay, would cost much more. It would be possible to extend the Geary Line in phases, however, with future connections throughout Oakland, serving as something as a parallel network to BART. Similarly, if the new Transbay Tube proves too expensive in the medium-term, the Geary Line could simply terminate at the Transbay Center along with high-speed and Caltrain services (though that would require a much larger structure than currently planned).

The overall benefits of running the Geary line as a catenary-based conventional rail system would save the region billions of dollars over a BART-based alternative: The new Transbay Tunnel could be two-tracked, rather than have four tracks; Geary line trains could use the existing rail corridors in the East Bay without requiring the complete reconstruction of the corridor; and the expense of the Transbay Center would be reduced as high-speed, regional, and local trains could share tracks.

An exciting possibility. Now where are the funds?

Map based on original (Revised BART map.svg) by Jake Berman at Wikimedia Commons

California High-Speed Rail High-Speed Rail Midwest High-Speed Rail

Final Applications Submitted for Corridor-Level High-Speed Rail Grants

» First phase of applications for Track 2 line planning and construction attracts major bid demands from California, North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

Update (13 October): State of Indiana has applied for $2.8 billion in funds on behalf of the Midwest Regional Rail Intiative for a 110 mph line connecting Chicago and Cleveland.

Update (6 October): Federal Railroad Administration head Joseph Szabo released the following news earlier today:

“We have received numerous applications from states and groups of states for the development of high-speed and intercity passenger rail programs for grant funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  These include 45 applications from 24 states totaling approximately $50 billion to advance high-speed rail corridor programs. We also received 214 applications from 34 states totaling $7 billion for corridor planning and smaller projects.”

All awards, according to the statement, will be announced this winter (for the $8 billion). This means that the states applying for the second round of high-speed rail (applications due in Spring 2010) will have to rely on Congress authorizing more money for the program…

Update: New York has submitted a proposal for $7.9 billion (inflation-adjusted) in investments in its Empire Corridor, making it the biggest project on the list yet announced. Pennsylvania has added its own proposal for $3.1 billion in funds.

More than forty states submitted $100 billion in proposals for stimulus funding of high-speed rail projects in July. Those applications were preliminary, but they followed with more serious applications at the end of August for the Federal Railroad Administration’s first, third, and fourth tracks of rail financing, which include small project construction and corridor planning. Last week, a number of states completed their final application for the FRA’s second track, which is designed for corridor-level construction on a much larger scale. These projects, unlike those submitted for consideration in August, do not have to be shovel-ready. The FRA will determine which states receive financing in the beginning of next year.

Though the list I’ve compiled below is not necessarily complete, it provides a basic overview of the states that have announced their applications thus far. Project costs total $18 $30 $50 billion — far higher than the $8 billion thus far committed to high-speed projects in the United States, and coming in addition to the almost $7 billion for which states applied in August. Clearly, there is far more demand than supply for these funds.

Applicants for High-Speed Rail Corridor Projects
State Amount Project Description
California $4.5 b 220 mph service preparations for San Francisco-San Jose; Merced-Fresno; Fresno-Bakersfield; Los Angeles-Anaheim (source)
Florida $2.6 b Tampa-Orlando HSR; Passenger rail between Jacksonville and West Palm Beach (for the first time since 1968) (source)
Georgia $472 m Atlanta to Macon, full capital costs (source)
Illinois $550 m Line from Chicago to St. Louis (source)
Indiana $2.8 b Line from Chicago to Cleveland, via Indiana (source)
Kansas $10 m Upgrades to the Newton-Kansas/Oklahoma state line (source)
Michigan $830 m Upgrades to 110 mph of Detroit-Chicago service (source)
New York
$7.9 b Albany-Rochester-Niagara Falls upgrades to 90-110 mph service (source)
North Carolina
$3.9 b Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond upgrades to 90-110 mph service (source)
Ohio $564 m 3C Line connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland (source)
$2 b Tulsa-Oklahoma City-Texas State Line (source)
Pennsylvania $3.1 b Harrisburg-Philadelphia speed up; Lackawanna Cutoff; Pittsburgh Maglev (source)
Virginia $1.75 b Washington-Richmond-Petersburg, reducing DC-Richmond trip times to 90 minutes (source)
Washington $850 m Portland-Seattle-International Border (source)
Wisconsin $652 m Milwaukee-Madison (source)


The state that submitted the second biggest proposal, California, has a major rail program underway, and there’s a lot to be said for why it should receive the lion’s share of federal funds. It is the only state whose taxpayers have made a serious commitment of their own to fund their rail program.

But North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, and Virginia have also submitted multi-billion dollar bids for money, arguing that their corridors deserve federal help. It remains to be seen how Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will decide to spend the cash, but it would be inappropriate for federal funding to ignore local efforts. But would it make sense for Oklahoma and California both to receive $2 billion, when the latter had already agreed to spend $10 billion of its own money, while the former has done nothing of the sort?

In a September meeting in Georgia, Mr. LaHood was asked whether that state would receive federal dollars for high-speed rail. He responded: “It’ll come to Atlanta if Georgia gets its act togetherThere has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important.” This kind of rhetoric is helpful, because it provides a clue for how the U.S. government will determine funding.

The Department of Transportation has yet to establish how it will measure the efficacy of various proposed rail projects. The government will release a draft national rail plan later this month, a document which should provide some clues about Washington’s goals for intercity rail. Initial plans suggested that the government would release funding for Phase I corridors (those submitted in August) in late September, but there has been no news on that front. It would be appropriate, after all, if the government provided funding after describing its goals for the rail program.

There is also the question about how much of the $8 billion the federal government will distribute for each of the funding tracks; some states are planning to wait for round two of applications, which will be due in Spring 2010. For instance, Minnesota is planning to apply for $200 million in track 2 funds for the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, Northstar, and the Northern Lights Express — but only next year. New Hampshire has temporarily delayed action on a planned line between Nashua and Concord, with the expectation that it will be able to demand funds later. How much will the DOT have already committed by then? Will there be any money left?

Of course, Congress has a role to play here as well. If the $8 billion included for high-speed rail in the stimulus was a good start, it clearly isn’t enough to rework the American rail system, which is hardly the paragon of quality service. President Obama requested $1 billion in additional annual appropriations for rail for the next five years, but that isn’t enough to meet the demand; the House has suggested a $4 billion grant for this year alone, but the Senate has yet to sign on. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a $50 billion allocation to rail over the next five years, but his efforts to see a new transportation bill passed have been delayed repeatedly by disagreements in the Congress about how to find money.

Nonetheless, the deluge of applications from states suggest that congresspeople increasingly have strong constituent desires for increasing the pot of federal rail allocations. Whether Congress will follow through on that incipient desire, however, is another matter.