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Expectations for High-Speed Rail Coming Down to Earth

Three months after the Obama administration announced
the first winners of what it hopes will be the first of many federal
grants to build U.S. high-speed rail networks, advocates and planners
are settling in for a long battle to surmount the obstacles and unknowns
that stand in the way of long-term bullet train development.

cahsr2.jpgIf they
build it, will people come? An early rendering of California's planned
high-speed rail line. (Photo: Inhabitat)

a briefing
yesterday sponsored by the Environmental Institute and the American
Public Transportation Association (APTA), rail experts walked a fine
line between espousing the benefits of high-speed train service and
warning of the pitfalls that could neutralize the effect of the 2009
stimulus law's $8 billion down payment on new rail projects.

"Absent a strong government partnership, we're not going to have
high-speed rail in this country," said Kevin Brubaker, deputy director
of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Brubaker added that the biggest challenge facing high-speed rail is
not the danger that ridership would not meet expectations -- although the
lack of
local transit connections in Florida's proposed
Orlando-Tampa line has fueled those questions -- but the appetite of the
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to make the bold leaps necessary
to finish the job.

"There is a great deal of reluctance at FRA in terms of moving too
quickly," Brubaker said, depicting his comments as pragmatism rather
than a knock at the agency. "There is nothing worse, as a bureaucrat,
than having your name on a bad program."

FRA chief Joseph Szabo took heat from
senior senators last week over how his agency has coordinated with
Amtrak and other inter-city rail players, suggesting that the
$2.5 billion
Congress approved last fall for high-speed rail might
not be replicated this year unless a more muscular strategy is employed
within the administration.

Indeed, at a congressional field hearing on bullet train service
late last month, Szabo downplayed the significance of the "high-speed"
aspect of inter-city rail. The federal rail program should be understood
"in the context of the transportation markets served and the needs of
the passengers rather than as a race to see how fast a piece of
equipment can move," Szabo said.

That assessment is in line with the White House's first round of
grant winners, only two of which -- California and Florida -- plan to
create rail systems that meet international standards for high-speed
trains by topping 150 miles-per-hour speeds. But private-sector planner
Bruce Horowitz warned yesterday that even in the case of Europe and
Asia's successful rail lines, consistent government spending was needed
to help balance capital and operating budgets.

"There was a misunderstanding, largely here [in America], that
those systems covered their costs," noted Horowitz, who works for the
firm ESH Consult.

Petra Todorovich, director of the urban-planning group America
2050, offered a high-speed rail caveat of her own: the need to pair
viable bullet trains with denser, transit-oriented land use strategies.
"You can't just build high-speed rail and expect a business district to
spring up around it," she said.

Florida officials have shown signs of heeding Todorovich's
concerns, vowing
this week
to extend its high-speed service south to Miami and
pursuing an ambitious commuter rail
in the Orlando area.

APTA vice president Art Guzzetti acknowledged the need to temper
expectations for the high-speed rail program by raising a rhetorical
question to other attendees at yesterday's briefing: "Did we jump into
high-speed rail before we were ready?"

Guzzetti quickly answered his own question, asserting that "the
administration did the right thing." He called the $8 billion the
late-in-the-game addition
to the stimulus "bold" and "abrupt," but
also pivotal in terms of the governmental and media interest that it

Yet not all rail advocates are as optimistic as the federal
program's $10.5 billion budget would suggest. Eric Peterson, a former
deputy administrator of the U.S. DOT's research
who now leads the American High-Speed Rail Alliance (AHSRA), lamented yesterday that
"so far ... the nation is basically unprepared to deal with" the work
necessary to build true high-speed rail.

Citing projections that American bullet train service could require
as much four decades to complete, Peterson said: "By the time we get
[our systems] built, the level of technology for high-speed rail service
in the world will be at a whole different plane. That leaves us with an
$8 billion expenditure for a [low] margin of rail investments."

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