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High Speed Rail Update, October 2011

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High Speed Rail Update, October 2011

Unfortunately, future federal transportation spending is still in flux, as Obama and Congressional Democrats desire a significant increase in spending while Boehner and Congressional Republicans want to severely cut existing spending. Recently, the Obama Administration has awarded funds for rail projects in an attempt to disburse the money before it could be eliminated. While we wait for a multiyear federal transportation bill to replace SAFETEA – LU, let us survey the rail corridors to see what progress has been made since my High Speed Rail Overview in April .

Northern New England

Construction has begun on portions of the Amtrak lines the Vermonter and the Downeaster in Vermont and Maine to upgrade the lines to a faster speed.

Empire (New York)

This corridor has received additional federal funding. The Draft EIS for upgrades between Niagara Falls and New York City will be completed this winter.

Pennsylvania

This corridor has received additional federal funding. By 2013 the upgraded corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia will enable top speeds of 125 mph, which will bring the travel time between the two cities down to as a little as 1 hour 15 minutes.

Southeast

This corridor has received additional federal funding. The Tier II Draft Environmental Impact statement for the corridor between Raleigh and Richmond is currently undergoing public comment; as a result of the comments, a route modification was made in downtown Raleigh.

Gulf Coast

No new updates.

Texas

This corridor has received additional federal funding, but no new updates. For background, please see my page on the Texas high speed rail project.

California

Construction has yet to begin on the initial portion of the line in the Central Valley. The public comment period for the draft environmental impact statements on the line in the Central Valley is scheduled to close on October 13, and lawsuits are expected from a variety of sources, including from farm owners objecting to having their property sliced in half. A revised business plan, including updates on the total cost of the line and ridership projections, is supposed to be released on November 1. If ground is not broken by next year, all federal money awarded to the California High Speed Rail project will have to be returned. Please see my page on the California High Speed rail plan for more background . That page will be updated when the revised business plan is released.

Pacific Northwest

Additional funding has been received but, according to the official website, there are no updates to report.

Chicago Hub Network

This corridor is probably the one where the most work has been accomplished to this point. Construction has begun on upgrading the Amtrak line between Chicago and St. Louis to be able to handle speeds of up to 110 mph. In addition, funding has now been awarded to upgrade the line between Detroit and Chicago to 110 mph. When completed, the one-way trip time between Detroit and Chicago will be shortened by 30 minutes.

Outlook

Given the current state of the economy and Republican antipathy towards high speed rail, I believe the most we can expect out of these projects is an increase in maximum speeds on existing rail lines from 79 mph to 110 mph. Consider that the high speed rail project likely to have been completed first, the proposed line in Central Florida, was summarily cancelled by Florida governor Rick Scott. Consider also that the California high speed rail project, that has a budget that keeps climbing and will likely require at least $20 billion from private sources - none of which have been identified - and local governments, who are laying off teachers and other municipal employees in droves, is likely to never have enough money to be completed.

As public transit advocates, I believe we have to understand that going forward we will be lucky to receive as much money for transit from all levels of government as we currently receive. Due to the limited available funding and the unlimited number of projects that need funding, we need to prioritize how to spend the available money. I would rather spend the money on public transit within cities, which will become increasingly critical as traffic congestion continues to increase, than spend it on high speed rail projects that will cover corridors already well served by airlines, especially because the recent rail funding awards demonstrate that we can make significant improvements to our existing rail lines at a fraction of the cost of constructing high speed rail.

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