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New DC/NY High Speed Rail Link?


During the first of our series of programs on Moynihan Station, Walter Zullig, counsel emeritus to Metro North Railroad said the “federal government has abdicated its responsibility” in supporting rail and, as a result, we lack a world class passenger rail system in the Northeast Corridor.

That may be changing according to an ambitious bipartisan proposal in Congress to allow private companies to develop a high speed passenger rail link along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Last week U.S. Rep. John L.Mica (FL), the Republican leader of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, was in New York touting the proposal to a group of international finance experts at the Dow Jones Infrastructure Summit. According to a press release, Mica recently introduced legislation, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (H.R. 5644), that requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to solicit proposals from the private sector for engineering, financing, and development plans for a high speed DC/NY link, to be followed by similar projects across the U.S.

A map of the proposed rail link:

Here are some recent quotes from Mica:

“With the promise of a trip time from center city Washington to center city New York of under two hours, this legislation would foster a renaissance for the heavily congested Northeast Corridor by opening it up, for the first time, to private sector transportation investment and expertise. The private sector must be part of the solution if we as a nation are going to solve the problem of how we finance our tremendous infrastructure needs,” Mica said.

“Three-fourths of chronic aviation delays in this nation are a result of congestion in the New York area airspace. Air traffic control modernization is still years away, yet even then modernization will only improve aviation congestion at the margins,” Mica said. “True high speed rail, beginning in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York and followed by other corridors around the country, can offer an efficient and environmentally friendly transportation alternative and relieve congestion across the United States.

The Associated Press reports:

In response to a suggestion that the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the U.S. airline industry, would not support such a proposal, Mica underlined the urgent need to update the rail system.

"We'll drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century," he said.

The upgraded rail network is merely the tip of the iceberg, though, of changes that Mica deems necessary to modernize the nation's highways, tracks and bridges. Funding for the projects remains a major hurdle. He estimates that about $1.5 trillion must be spent over the next five years just to maintain the current system.

Mica suggests that a partnership between public and private financiers is the key to getting some projects, including the high speed rail network, off the ground. Next, Mica said the regions that require the most help need to be identified and plans on how to connect individual state networks need to be laid out.

"All you need is the rules of the game, and then you can play," he said.

Amtrak ceo Alex Kummant downplayed the idea of involving the private sector when he spoke to the Associated Press on the sidelines of a hearing on the bill last week:

"I'm open to any innovative ideas," he said. "I just think we need to be really honest with ourselves on what the British Rail experience really was."

The privatization of Britain's state-run rail service in the mid-1990s proved unpopular and critics blamed it for poor service and safety problems. Many aspects of privatization were subsequently undone.

Limited-stop trains on Amtrak's Acela Express service already make the New York-Washington trip in 2 1/2 hours, and the tens of billions of dollars it would take to create a two-hour service might be better spent elsewhere, Kummant said.

We would like to see some comments about this idea. Let us know what you think.

Details on the legislation from the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

The bill is a five-year reauthorization of Amtrak, and includes the essential provisions of H.R. 5644, a bipartisan bill Mica, Shuster and others introduced in March. Although the Amtrak Acela currently provides passenger rail service between Washington D.C. and New York City, the route’s average speed of 83 mph pales in comparison to speeds of successful systems in other countries, where fast and reliable high speed rail plays a vital role in transportation. French and Japanese trains, for instance, hit speeds of 200 mph and more, making these systems attractive alternatives to driving or flying.

The high speed rail provisions in the Amtrak legislation include:

• The Department of Transportation will solicit proposals for development of a high speed rail link along the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City;

• Proposals will include engineering, financing, and development plans for the DC/NYC corridor;

• Proposals will require DC to NYC express service of no more than 2 hours;

• DOT will convene a Commission of state, local, federal, rail and rail labor stakeholders to evaluate the proposals and report its recommendations to Congress;

• Congress will evaluate the Commission’s report and take the necessary action to commence work on the corridor;
• The DC/NYC link will serve as a pilot for similar projects across the United States, and the DOT Secretary may request proposals for other corridors after selection of the Northeast Corridor proposal;

• Guarantees labor protections; and

• Requires a study to examine how to achieve maximum economic utilization of the Northeast Corridor.

Read “US Rep: High Speed Rail Will Ease Transport Woes,” by the Associated Press

Read “Bill Would Open Door to Private, High-Speed Rail,” by Sarah Karush for the Associated Press

Maximizing the value of the NEC