US gives out $2.3bn more for high speed rail

The Federal Railroad Administration is now accepting applications for states to take advantage of the additional funds, which will lay the tracks for future private sector participation in building out the US’ vision for high-speed rail travel.

The Federal Railroad Administration has opened up the application process for an additional $2.3 billion in high-speed rail grant money, bringing the agency’s total commitment to high speed rail to more than $10 billion.

In January, the Administration awarded $8 billion of stimulus money to enable high-speed rail projects, with the biggest chunks going to California, at $2.25 billion, and Florida, at $1.25 billion.

The $2.3 billion that opened up for applications this week will come from the US Department of Transportation’s annual budget for the 2010 fiscal year and “will allow the states to further advance their high-speed rail plans”, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo said in a statement.

Warren Flatau, a spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration, added that public-private partnerships will be “the underpinning of financing” for some of these high-speed rail projects. And Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Infrastructure Investor magazine earlier this year that delivering high-speed rail travel will be “a combination of public and private expertise from other parts of the world coming to America”.

A prerequisite to private investment, though, is what the Federal Railroad Administration is calling “corridor development” – a combination of environmental permitting, preliminary engineering and design, right-of-way acquisition, ridership studies and other activities that prepare high-speed rail lines for future investment and construction.

Of the $2.3 billion now being made available, $2.1 billion is intended for such corridor development, Flatau said. The remainder, about $245 million, will go toward individual construction projects.

The California High Speed Rail Authority, the organization in charge of developing the state’s ambitious 800 mile-long network of high speed rail lines, has already said in a statement that it plans to apply for a chunk of the $2.3 billion.

All such applications are due to the Federal Railroad Administration by 6 August. Grant awards are expected to be announced by 30 September, according to a statement.

In related news, Karen Hedlund, formerly the chief counsel to the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, has crossed over to the Federal Railroad Administration effective 29 June, where she will also serve as chief counsel.

Hedlund will be coming to the Federal Railroad Administration at a time when its core mission appears to be shifting toward a larger purpose. For many years, the agency had functioned mostly as a safety and regulatory body for the US railroad industry. Now, with billions of dollars to hand out and oversee the development of high-speed rail all across the United States, its place in history is akin to that of the Federal Highway Administration in 1956, when the government launched its ambitious highway building programme.

“It’s a transformative period for the agency,” Flatau said.