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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis June 17, 2011
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FRA Forum: Implementing the Presidentís Vision for High-Speed Rail in America
BY SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

It was a standing room only crowd the afternoon of June 13, during APTA’s 2011 Rail Conference, at the FRA Forum featuring Joseph C. Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

After being introduced by Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Dave Carol, market leader, high-speed rail, who listed the budgetary ups and downs concerning high-speed rail funding, Szabo said: “I would argue that the trajectory [of high-speed rail] is upward and onward—even with these ebbs and flows. We need to understand that it isn’t always a straight line.”  

Szabo then proceeded to give a status report on each high-speed rail corridor. “What we’ve been able to achieve in a little over two years,” he said, “is—in and of itself—amazing.” He added: “I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a demand from the public for improved high-speed and intercity rail.” As proof, he noted that FRA had received more than 500 applications for its High-Speed and Intercity Rail Program from 39 states and the District of Columbia requesting more than $75 billion in funding—“so you can see what the interest is from the states.”

With 33 states and DC moving forward with high-speed rail, he said, the vast majority of the dollars have been invested in the build-out of corridors “where we do believe we’ll get the best bang for the buck, the best return.”

Szabo made the point that, not only does he believe President Obama’s goal [of bringing high-speed and intercity rail to  80 percent of America in 25 years] is achievable; he identified the need—that the U.S. population is expected to grow by more than 150 million people by 2015. - He graphically underscored this point by saying that many new residents would equal the current populations of Texas, New York, California, and Florida combined.

“We frankly have a pending mobility crisis—congestion today is already costing our economy $120 billion a year. Without foresight and planning, congestion is only going to get worse, because it’s not just the movement of people but the movement of goods. We’re in competition with global competitors across the world. Europeans can do a quick day trip from Paris to London and be home in time for dinner. We can’t. And that puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” he said.

Szabo also talked about investments made so far, but reminded the audience that “while we’re continuing to lay the foundation for this high-speed rail network, this is a long-term build-out— as was the original interstate highway program.”

The next part of the administrator’s presentation focused on the specific regions that have received high-speed rail funding. He delineated what the federal dollars have paid for, including such elements as station upgrades, substantial improvements to on-time performance, and vastly improved reliability.

Concerning the Midwest plan to bring high-speed rail to Chicago and St. Louis, he said: “You can see the pieces starting to come together. You’re going to see more than 70 percent of the journeys at speeds of 110 mph. That’s significant.” 

His discussion of the Northeast Corridor was extensive. “Everybody understands the market potential of the corridor. Between the population density, the distances, the size of these communities—there’s just no question what the potential is,” he said. Moreover, Washington, DC’s Union Station eventually will connect to the Southeast Corridor, where, he said, with the emerging economies of Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh, “you end up with a corridor that has tremendous potential.” The Charlotte/Raleigh corridor alone, he noted, is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, with ridership doubling in the last year.

Szabo next stressed the importance of the Buy America provisions: “We’re adamant about this. The systems and equipment will be built in America by an American workforce.” He then gave some examples of new plants being created to make items such as motors and trains in the U.S. And the new plants mean new jobs. In Pennsylvania, for example, he noted that every General Electric job supports close to three additional ones. 

When asked about foreign investment, he responded: “We’re in a global society—it’s all international. We’re saying, however, that those who want to build equipment must open up factories here. And there are several examples of firms that have done that.”

So how, an audience member asked, can we mobilize a group like APTA to be helpful in convincing Congress to fund high-speed rail and other elements of public transportation?  Szabo said it’s less “selling” the benefits and more about explaining them, stressing the importance of mobility to our future. “I believe,” he said, “the grassroots citizenry is ahead of the elected officials on this. So it’s important that their desires and concerns flow up to those who will be casting the votes.”

“We truly believe that the president’s vision for high-speed rail will transform the way we move and do business in this 21st century,” he said. “We certainly recognize that there’s a great deal more to be done, but in this era of 24/7 news coverage, we’re thinking long-term.” 

Szabo added that he tells his staff to just “ignore the chatter you hear about [vacillating] funding. Do good work every day, build good projects, and everything else will take care of itself.” 
“We believe,” said Szabo, “we can build a transportation network that will serve the next generation in America.”

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