Passenger rail advocates have waited for decades for the federal financial support they received in the infrastructure bill President Biden signed into law last year. But now they’ll only have a few more years to prove it the $66 billion Worth it.
“We celebrated the infrastructure bill for about a day, and then I panicked,” Jennie Louwerse, the assistant secretary for multimodal transportation at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, said Thursday at a conference of high-speed rail advocates in Philadelphia.
“Like the National Highway Act of 1956 (which first funded the Interstate Highway System), this funding act is transformative. But this is our only bite of the apple to prove that we can do amazing things with this money,” she said.
Many proponents hoped that the new five-year infrastructure package would mark a turning point in rail passenger funding, just as the 1956 Act led to generations of spending expanding the country’s highway network. But they know that this is not to be taken for granted.
“We need to think about this next five years as if there weren’t going to be another five years because we recognize the urgency of what needs to be done,” said Nuria Fernandez, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. “We need to see these investment dollars boost the economy, create more jobs, and get people excited about putting their tax dollars on public transportation.”
Amit Bose, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, also urged attendees to quickly shift from advocacy used to raise the funds to implementing the projects and programs the money will support.
“I know many of us are making huge efforts to get bipartisan $66 billion infrastructure legislation,” he said at the conference hosted by the American Public Transportation Association. “Now is the time to execute. Many tend to focus on this political part while forgetting about implementation.”
Participants were also fully aware that changes in the political landscape could pose problems for their preferred projects. Many policy pundits believe Republicans are likely to take control of the U.S. House or Senate after the 2022 election, and GOP lawmakers have been wary of passenger rail expansion and Amtrak in general.
Now that the law has been passed, government agencies are making efforts to implement it. Much of the initial focus will be on the FRA, which will determine which passenger rail corridors it wishes to expand and improve.
The agency will have to decide how to spend billions of dollars. It can upgrade existing lines in places like the Northeast Corridor, which already has relatively robust service. It can build a few new lines. Or it can spread the money more thinly across a larger part of the country, a move that would result in less drastic improvements but could help bolster political support for the effort.
But FRA is also urging state and local officials to prepare as best they can for funding when it comes.
The Infrastructure Act, for example, makes it easier for states to conclude regional pacts to regulate new rail corridors. The idea is based on an alliance of three Gulf Coast states who worked together to initially provide Amtrak service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Fla. — and partially restore it since Hurricane Katrina.
Local leaders can also build support with regional political leaders, businesses and community groups to improve their prospects for money and ensure projects run smoothly.
However, the formal processes may take years before states are ready to move forward with route improvements.
An attempt to add a second daily Amtrak round trip service between the Minnesota twin cities, through Milwaukee and to places such as Chicago, began in 2013 and is ongoing should now start by 2024.
Increasing the number of passenger trains running between Milwaukee and Chicago has taken even longer since the process began in 2012 and there is no resolution in sight, said Arun Rao, director of passenger rail at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
He completed a long list of steps that must be completed before construction begins, including identifying a corridor, conducting a feasibility study, identifying infrastructure upgrades, obtaining cost estimates, going through environmental assessments, working with community members , applying for grants and more Working with freight railroads (who usually own the tracks) to see how the plan can be implemented.
Rao said he hopes the new federal infrastructure law will “streamline the process” by allowing states to prepare entire corridors at once and by providing ongoing, reliable means to keep the planning process moving, rather than relying on grant applications or having to wait for state funds to be approved.
There is new impetus in the state of Washington build a high-speed line between Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland, Oregon via Seattle. The Washington state legislature recently put $150 million in a transportation package to study the concept in hopes of attracting more federal funding.
Amy Scarton, the assistant secretary for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the state is now at the point where the environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would begin, a time-consuming process Transport officials are often to blame to the bring important projects to a standstill. “That’s what’s keeping us from accessing this plethora of new federal funds,” she said.
But there are other practical obstacles because the route would cross state and international borders. Washington state can’t just get hold of land in Canada or Oregon, so Scarton said she hopes an intergovernmental agreement like the one on the Gulf Coast could eventually help build a high-speed rail line in the Pacific Northwest.
Mike Reininger, the CEO of Brightline, a rail passenger service company that operates in South Florida and plans to expand to other Florida destinations and build a line between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area, said the most important thing is giving customers something To offer tangible service with clear benefits as quickly as possible.
“Someone has to build a system that is new and modern. You must do it now; it has to be in the next four and a half years,” he said. “If we aim for something so big that we speak in generations, we will miss the opportunity.”
But being overly ambitious can also have its pitfalls. Public support for the state-funded California high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles has eroded over time as construction delays and cost overruns have hampered the effort. The construction goes on in the Central Valley, with plans to eventually link the service to the Bay Area.
“The only thing I can do is perform better,” said Brian Kelly, the CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority route fifty. “The agency fought for many reasons. We are better off today than when I arrived (2018). And we keep getting better.”
“The more we get those early build deals and start showing what it’s like when we get it right, the better our performance will be. This is the only way to improve the brand. This is the only way to improve the “high-speed train”. And that’s what we’re working towards,” he said.
Kelly warned other attendees about the missteps made by the California agency early in its history, after voters approved $10 billion for the project and the Obama administration added billions more.
Under intense pressure to start construction quickly, the agency secured construction contracts before completing the necessary preparations, Kelly said. In many cases, the authorities had not secured the right of way they needed or had routed the supply lines first.
Now the agency uses a “stage gate” process, a methodical method to ensure all steps along the way are complete before construction begins.
“In short, it means don’t start until you’re ready,” Kelly said. “That way we won’t make the mistakes of the past.”