High Speed Rail Acceleration

by Lance Meister

In what was, I think, widely regarded as something of a surprise last year, President Obama announced that $8 billion dollars would be allocated to high speed rail (HSR) projects around the country.  This was a complete and fundamental about-face from previous policy and totally unexpected.  The next several months were spent by the administration and the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) trying to determine what projects would qualify and how the money would be allocated.

The late summer and early fall was a frantic time for project sponsors, trying to meet the requirements for the grant applications.  HMMH was involved, in a small part, in a number of those applications, including in Florida, California, New York and the Mid-West.  Since then, it’s been a waiting game.

On Thursday, January 28, President Obama made the announcement regarding the grant awards.  The full list of awards is here.  Given that he was making the announcement in Florida, it came as no surprise that the Tampa-Orlando project was one of the big winners.  Other big winners were the California HSR project, New York-Albany-Buffalo and the Mid-West projects, including Chicago to St. Louis.  Many of the projects on the list are not really high speed rail projects, but are really just upgrades to existing lines to improve speeds and safety.  However, Florida and California are dedicated HSR projects, and if implemented as proposed, would represent real HSR in this country that would compete with systems around the world.

It’s clear that the $8 billion is not enough to build a complete HSR system, even if the entire amount had been given to one project.  However, it is very symbolic, and it’s a jump start at getting projects moving, and hopefully attracting more money at all levels to get the projects built.  The administration is also committing money each year to continue funding of HSR projects.

It’s been a long time coming in this country, and for those who have been advocating HSR for decades in the US, it’s a sweet victory.  Our own Carl Hanson has been involved in virtually every HSR project in the country over the last 30 years, and he’s as excited as I’ve ever seen him at the possibilities.

Now the fun really begins.  It’s time to get HSR moving in this country.  My hope is that one day we refer to the Obama High-Speed Rail System, much like the Eisenhower Highway System.   This may very well be the enduring legacy of the Obama administration.

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