High-speed rail: federal report warns of missing links

Building a high-speed rail network requires more than money -- there needs to be an industry ready to manufacture the necessary infrastructure, and political will on the part of participating states. A new GAO report says many of these elements are still missing.

Building a national high-speed rail network requires more than throwing money at a program. There needs to be a sustainable industry ready to produce and maintain the necessary infrastructure, and political will -- plus additional funding -- on the part of participating states.

The Government Accounting Office, the watchdog of federal spending, issued a review of recent high-speed rail initiatives, and questions whether a still-emerging industry will have the capacity to supply necessary rail equipment, and if a political base exists to sustain such efforts. (Full report available in PDF.)

The GAO's report was intended to assess the impact of last year's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act), which is providing more than $10 billion to develop high-speed rail within the United States. (By contrast, the government only provided $120 million in 2008 and 2009 combined.)

The report notes that "while there is a palpable excitement created by the Recovery Act’s funding for new high-speed rail service, establishing new service is a difficult, multiyear effort." What is needed is plenty of additional federal capital and state operating funds to keep things moving beyond the timeline of the stimulus act funds, which may be difficult if state budgets remain in the red.

Plus, high-speed rails would need the cooperation from private railroads which own most of the rail infrastructure in the United States; and an entire industry needs to be created to help obtain equipment, such as rail cars, "which can take years to design, test, and build."

The GAO report outlined three areas of challenge for high-speed rail:

State support for high-speed rail: "State successes to initiate or improve intercity passenger rail services in the recent past (the last 15 years), hinged largely on their abilities to build public and political support, secure funding, obtain equipment, and manage their services."

Rail industry support: GAO reports that "rail industry stakeholders are optimistic that they can meet increased public investment in intercity passenger rail." However, the report cautions, "even with strong federal leadership and funding, it could take several years to provide the necessary infrastructure, such as for building new passenger rail cars, potentially making it difficult to spend some Recovery Act high speed rail funds by 2017, as required by law."

Federal Rail Administration strategic vision: Due to the speed in which funds needed to be dispersed to help stimulate economic activity, FRA did not have an opportunity to develop a strategic vision, the GAO report says. "FRA had to quickly draft a preliminary national rail plan and a high speed rail strategic vision, as well as develop a program to distribute Recovery Act funds.... The strategic vision did not define the goals, stakeholder roles, or objectives for federal involvement in high-speed intercity passenger rail and the preliminary national rail plan did not have any recommendations for future action. While states will be the recipients of Recovery Act funds, many states do not have state rail plans that would establish strategies and priorities, capital investments, and public benefits of rail investments in the state."

FRA is planning to release another version of its national rail plan in September 2010 which it expects to discuss issues such as the roles of federal, state, and local governments in rail transportation and public and private funding sources.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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