U.S. Dot Clocks High-Speed Rail at 110 MPH, Give or Take

The federal DOT has just released its guidance
for states seeking a share of its $8 billion in high-speed rail funding
– and tucked in the rules are standards that could prove crucial to
the project’s success.

lahoodtrain.jpgRay LaHood geeks out on French high-speed rail. Photo via The Overhead Wire

The
definition of high-speed rail can vary depending on the source. The
original White House outline cited a top speed of 150 mph, while
European and Asian networks can go as high as 200 mph.

Today’s DOT guidance uses the same standard that was outlined in
last year’s Amtrak reauthorization bill: high-speed trains are those
"reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 mph."

That
standard appears flexible enough to include most regional rail plans.
California’s high-speed authority believes the state’s service can
reach a top speed of 220 mph. The states working on a midwestern rail
network with Chicago at the center, however, envision their trains achieving an average of 67 mph for local service and 78 mph for express rides.

In
addition to speed, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will
initially evaluate high-speed rail proposals using six criteria, with
each one assuming a different priority level depending on the pot of
money that’s being spent.

Here’s where things get a bit complicated, because high-speed rail aid has been split into four tracks.

The
first two use stimulus money for projects and programs, and the second
two use money from the annual congressional appropriations process for
planning and project execution. In fact, DOT’s guidance says the first
two tracks of money — the $8 billion popularly referred to as
high-speed rail stimulus money — may not be paid out in full this
year, "to allow for potential future rounds of solicitations and awards
which occur after 2009."

The first track of
stimulus money is aimed at "shovel-ready" projects that are supportive
of high-speed rail development. For these funds, economic benefits
(read: job creation) is the No. 1 criterion, followed by general
transportation benefits at No. 2.

Saving energy, promoting
sustainable development and discouraging fossil fuel use — what DOT
calls "other public benefits" — is ranked No. 6 out of six priorities
for this first track of stimulus money. For the second track of
stimulus money, reserved for longer-term work that’s not primarily
aimed at economic recovery, "other public benefits" is priority No. 2.

Another
DOT criterion focuses on the sustainability of each high-speed rail
network, or how well local planners have anticipated the financial risk
of such a massive project. Sustainability is ranked in the bottom three
priorities for both pots of stimulus money.

The dense nature
of today’s 68-page guidance may make it difficult for many in the
mainstream media to pay close attention. Yet with $8 billion on the
line, it should be interesting to see how many state and local
officials weigh in before DOT’s official comment period ends on July 10.