The ‘Infrastructure Condo’ That Could Help Make High-Speed Rail Happen

As the Obama administration prepares to
roll out its ambitious new investment in high-speed rail (HSR),
right-of-way — primary control over a stretch of train track, whether
existing or envisioned — has become a major consideration for states
that want to jumpstart local networks.

In California, freight railroad Union Pacific is negotiating with HSR planners over sharing right-of-way. In upstate New York, planners concede that
proposed HSR trains may not reach Niagara Falls because of the hard
bargain getting driven by CSX, the freight company that controls
right-of-way.

So how can the White House’s HSR plan avoid miring in local right-of-way struggles?

Urban
studies professor and transportation expert Anthony Perl outlined his
proposed solution today at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference. Perl’s answer to the right-of-way conundrum: the "infrastructure condominium."

Perl’s
term may not roll off the tongue, but his concept is simple. Instead of
freight railroads engaging in high-stakes dealmaking for rights-of-way,
HSR planners would lease the rights to the track.

"Freight railroads can collect ‘rent’
for their rights-of-way," Perl explained today, "and can get involved in the operation end [of HSR] if they’re
interested. All they have to do is sign the right documents … and they’ll
get a check every month."

Perl, director of the urban studies program at Simon Fraser University, explains the concept further in his book Transport Revolutions:

In
a railway infrastructure condominium, the right-of-way would be owned
separately from the tracks, communications and signalling systems and
electric power distribution equipment. … The tracks occupying a
railway condominium could remain quite segregated operationally, or
some could be integrated into a common network. Rents could be paid to
a ground-lease holder, which in many cases would be a private railway
company that had previously owned the integrated tracks, signals, and
right-of-way. These rents could be used to finance electrification of
America’s freight rail network, which could remain in private hands.

Perl
acknowledged that his "infrastructure condo" would not solve all the
difficulties facing the U.S. government’s HSR buildout, and that the
freight industry "would fight such an idea" given that their existing
rail infrastructure stands to receive a major upgrade as part of the U.S. DOT’s first round of HSR grants.

Still, with conservative critics predicting
that the need to accommodate existing track ownership could turn into a
"subsidy" for freight railroads, the prospect of reining in the freight
industry’s bargaining power — while providing it a guaranteed source
of revenue for rights-of-way — could catch on in Washington.

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