States ask for $50bn for high-speed rails

Despite the overwhelming interest, only $8bn in federal stimulus money is available toward building out high-speed rail networks in the US.

The Federal Rail Administration has pushed back its deadline for awarding $8 billion in federal stimulus money for the construction of high speed rail corridors in the US after receiving an avalanche of applications for more than six times the available stimulus funds.

All told, the administration received 45 applications from 24 states for $50 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail corridor programs. The agency also received 214 applications from 34 states totaling $7 billion for corridor planning and smaller projects, according to a statement from the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, Joseph Szabo.

Szabo added that “due to the overwhelming response” and the Administration’s “desire to lay the groundwork for a truly national high-speed rail and intercity passenger rail program” the Administration will announce awards in the winter.

It's good to see lots of interest but unfortunately that's all supposed to come out of the $8 billion. That's going to be a problem

Andy Kunz

The Administration was originally going to announce awards by the end of this month. The deadline for applications was 2 October.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote on his blog that the overwhelming response was an indicator that “President Obama's vision for new and improved American passenger rail service is speeding toward reality”.

High speed rail industry participants, however, struck a more cautious note.

“It’s good to see lots of interest but unfortunately that’s all supposed to come out of the $8 billion. That’s going to be a problem,” said Andy Kunz, president of the US High Speed Rail Association, an industry group based in Washington DC.

Kunz said the $8 billion in stimulus funds will only enable “two to three tiny pieces” of the first 4,000 mile phase of a 17,000 “true” mile high speed rail network envisioned by his association.

He defines “true” high-speed rail as passenger trains that can travel at more than 200 miles per hour. Such transportation has been around for years in countries like France and Spain but is noticeably lacking in the US, which relies primarily on passenger transportation by road and air.

Kunz estimates that the total cost for building out the system – composed of four major sections to be built between 2015 and 2030 as a link to all the major urban centers in the US – would top $600 billion.

He said this is only a preliminary estimate, “but that shows you the scale of this”. He said Congress “needs to add some zeros to the end” of its $8 billion in funding.

The system will be built out much faster if the private sector participates in its construction, he said. The goal of the US High Speed Rail Association will be to organize the industry and promote private investment in high speed rail so that federal dollars like the stimulus funds can be leveraged, he added.