Hotline # 742 - January 20, 2012


In his State of the State Address on January 18, California’s Governor Jerry Brown issued a stirring defense of the state’s Los Angeles to San Francisco high-speed rail project.

The project, which would bring 220-mph passenger rail service to the state, has been under fire since its inception.  Recently, critics have been energized by a revised business plan that increases the final price to $74.5 billion (in 2011 dollars) and a peer review group study that, among other things, questions the project’s funding structure.

The benefits to the growing state—which is projected to add around 25 million people by the year 2050, bringing its total population to around 60 million people—remain evident, however.  Also evident are the costs of looking to meet that demand with roads and airports—transportation officials estimate California would need to spend an estimated $171 billion on 3,000 miles of new freeways, five new airport runways, and build 90 new departure gates through airport expansion or new construction.

Given the importance of Governor Brown’s remarks, NARP is reproducing the relevant segment in its entirety:

”Just as bold is our plan to build a high-speed rail system, connecting the Northern and Southern parts of our state. This is not a new idea. As governor the last time, I signed legislation to study the concept. Now thirty years later, we are within weeks of a revised business plan that will enable us to begin initial construction before the year is out.

“President Obama strongly supports the project and has provided the majority of funds for this first phase. It is now your decision to evaluate the plan and decide what action to take. Without any hesitation, I urge your approval.

“If you believe that California will continue to grow, as I do, and that millions more people will be living in our state, this is a wise investment. Building new runways and expanding our airports and highways is the only alternative. That is not cheaper and will face even more political opposition.

“Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking. I understand that feeling but I don’t share it, because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here. California is still the Gold Mountain that Chinese immigrants in 1848 came across the Pacific to find. The wealth is different, derived as it is, not from mining the Sierras but from the creative imagination of those who invent and build and generate the ideas that drive our economy forward.

“Critics of the high-speed rail project abound as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. During the 1930’s, The Central Valley Water Project was called a ‘fantastic dream’ that ‘will not work.’ The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as ‘new Deal jitterbug economics.’ In 1966, then Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called BART a ‘billion dollar potential fiasco.’ Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: ‘totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now.”

The California State Legislature will now need to give a final OK to the sale of $9 billion in voter-approved bonds for the project to go forward.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell joined officials from Amtrak to announce that passenger rail service will be extended to Norfolk, Virginia by the end of 2012—ten months earlier than scheduled.

“This service will provide immediate relief to road-weary travelers between two of the state’s most congested regions” said Governor McDonnell, referring to the Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton and surrounding towns) and northern Virginia’s Washington, DC suburbs. “This service is long overdue and I congratulate our partners and commend their cooperation in moving up the scheduled start date.”

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT), CSX, Norfolk Southern, and the City of Norfolk have been working in tandem to complete the essential infrastructure upgrades what will connect Norfolk to the Northeast Corridor.  Inauguration of the service will reintroduce intercity passenger rail to the city, which has been without since 1977.

“There is high demand for passenger rail service in Virginia as demonstrated by considerable ridership growth throughout the Commonwealth,” said Amtrak Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications Joe McHugh. “We have a strong partnership with the Commonwealth and look forward to operating this expanded service to Norfolk in 2012, providing passengers the option of convenient one-seat service to Washington and Northeast Corridor destinations.”

The project—which upgrades Norfolk Southern and CSX rails between the city of Norfolk and Richmond via Petersburg, where a new connection between the two lines is being built—will cost the Commonwealth around $101 million.  In negotiating the service agreement, care was taken to ensure that freight traffic would not be adversely affected. The new train, initially one daily round-trip leaving Norfolk early in the morning and returning in the evening, will be in addition to the existing 2 daily round-trips between Boston and Newport News via an all-CSX route.

“We’re adding a track to allow passenger trains to run through [Norfolk Southern’s Portlock yard] without interfering with coal trains,” said Robin Chapman, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern Railway. “Construction will begin in late 2012 and will probably be complete in late 2013,” after the train begins operating.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced late last week that they will collaborate on a pilot project to speed up the environmental review on the proposed work to bring true high-speed passenger rail service to the Northeast Corridor (NEC).

The NEC is currently the fastest railroad in North America, but with top speeds of 150 mph falls short of the 220-mph services operating in Western Europe and Asia.  In 2011, Amtrak unveiled a $117 billion plan to introduce world-class bullet trains on the Washington, D.C.-New York City-Boston corridor, and the move by the Obama Administration to expedite work on an Environmental Impact Statement demonstrates a high-level commitment to lay the groundwork for a successful near-term implementation of the project.

“The Northeast Corridor is the busiest rail corridor in the U.S.,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.  “Our planned improvements will lead to more jobs, a stronger rail system and a stronger economy.  By bringing all involved parties to the table earlier in the process, we will do the job better and finish it sooner.” 

In addition to substantial upgrades to the physical infrastructure comprising the NEC, the project will require new, straighter route alignments to accommodate higher speeds.  The CEQ and DOT will look to shorten the refractory period between application and review, while engaging the public and other stakeholders earlier on in the process.

“The National Environmental Policy Act provides essential protections for American communities and the natural resources our economy depends on,” said Nancy Sutley, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.  “This pilot project will ensure a collaborative environmental review process for quicker, better-informed decisions for the Northeast Corridor high speed rail project.”

Amtrak responded positively to the announcement with an official statement from CEO Joseph Boardman.

“The decision to expedite the federal environmental review process for Northeast Corridor (NEC) high-speed rail projects is great news for all users of the NEC who are seeking increased passenger rail capacity, mobility and connectivity in the region,” said Boardman.  “A faster review process will help speed along Amtrak’s efforts to rebuild and improve today’s Corridor and advance Amtrak’s vision to develop a new high-capacity, 220 mph NextGen high-speed rail system serving the region, including our Gateway Program to bring more track, tunnel and station capacity into the heart of Manhattan.”

However, with the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program zeroed out in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, the funding component will remain a big obstacle to moving the project forward.  On the other hand, introducing true high-speed rail on the NEC has received broad bipartisan backing, with the nominal endorsement of House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-FL).  That broad coalition of support could be an all-important difference in this year’s round of appropriations.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced the go-ahead for a new $3 million multi-modal station in Rockford, Illinois.  The station will be located just south of the downtown area and will—in conjunction with a previously announced $60 million project to begin Chicago-Rockford-Dubuque corridor Amtrak service—restore passenger rail service to the town that has been absent since 1979.

“Investing in Rockford is good for Illinois,” Governor Quinn said. “Not only will we create a new station and Amtrak service, we’ll create new jobs and attract more economic development to the Rockford area. Illinois residents will have additional travel options and reduced travel times from Rockford to the Chicago area and to western parts of our state.”

The initial $3 million is being provided by the Illinois Jobs Now! capital plan, and will support almost 700 local jobs (the total cost of developing the station will be $12 million).  Construction is set to begin later this year.  While intercity rail was the primary motivation behind the station’s development, local public transit will also be a beneficiary.
“This is great news for Illinois. Under the leadership of Governor Quinn, the grant allocated for this project is expected to provide easy access for Amtrak passengers to and from the Rockford metropolitan area,” Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said. “The new facility also will encourage the public to use transit as a mode of transportation and expand community access.”

Amtrak filed an official complaint with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) over the dispatching practices of the Canadian National Railway (CN), asking the STB to investigate the causes behind CN’s consistent failure to meet the standards for on-time performance established under federal law (the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act).

Between October 1, 2010 and September 30, 2011, eight Amtrak routes that operated over tracks owned by CN failed to meet the new legal standard for on-time performance (which requires trains to arrive at the end-point station within 15 minutes of schedule at least 80% of the time). After its efforts to deal directly with CN failed, Amtrak filed a formal Petition for Relief with the STB seeking a formal investigation, recommendations for improvement, and damages levied against CN.

“[CN’s] commitment to providing its freight customers with precision-level on-time performance stands in stark contrast to CN’s abject failure to deliver Amtrak passenger trains on schedule,” the Petition says, adding that the delays are “the direct result of policy choices and an unlawful preference for freight trains over Amtrak trains.”

Amtrak’s petition doesn’t stop there, however; it asks the STB to determine if Canadian National has engaged in a pattern of violating its obligation under federal law to give preference to Amtrak passenger trains over freight trains on Canadian National ‘s rail lines.

NARP members can read more about this story in the next edition of NARP News.

The City Council of Troy, Michigan approved the funding of a new Intermodal Transit Center by a 4 to 3 vote on January 18.

Business leaders proved to be decisive in swinging the vote back towards the transit supporter (a vote to kill the intermodal station passed 4 to 3 on December 19), with Troy’s Chamber of Commerce leading the way.

“We’ve got the full support on this from our major members,” Troy Chamber of Commerce President Michele Hodges stated before the council.  “If a revenue gap is identified between Amtrak revenues and transit center operations expenses, based upon the current plan and design, the Troy Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with members of the business community ... commit to working with the city in filling the gap.”

Proponents were able to affect a compromise by scaling back the magnitude and size of the propose transit center, thereby lowering the final cost.

“I am focused on how this transit center may benefit future generations, and not on the next election,” said Councilman Wade Fleming, who voted against the station in December’s vote while indicating that a lower price tag could win his support.

[You can read more about the station’s second life on the NARP Blog, which features a piece penned by NARP Vice Chairman John DeLora of Michigan.]