Monday, May 10, 2010

Porcari: High-speed rail winners must 'have their act together'

Winners in the United States high-speed rail network will be the states and regions that "have their act together", U.S. Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari said during his keynote address at last week's European-American Chamber of Commerce 2010 Urban and Regional Public Transportation Conference.

Porcari said that, for years, Americans have watched our European and Asian counterparts with envy as they continue to build and improve on world-class transportation networks.

Now is the time to reclaim our stake, he said. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has seen the need to invest in the types of transportation systems our country needs to thrive and compete in the world economy.

"There's no question that the ability to conceive and execute state-of-the-art transportation infrastructure is in America's DNA," Porcari said. "A modern, accessible intercity passenger rail system is a central part of this vision."

But many years of hard work are ahead, he warned, adding that years of disinvestment in our urban and suburban rail infrastructure has left it "in a shambles". Grand stations such as Penn Station in New York and Union Station in Denver have seen much better days.

"The truth is, we have a long way to go to establish – or, more directly, re-establish – world-class rail service," Porcari said. "We've gone from cathedrals to trailers, as urban rail stations are abandoned, under-maintained, or torn down altogether. It's sad but true. We've squandered the investments made by our parents and grandparents."

A down payment

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $8 billion in rail transit funding to 31 states. An additional $2.5 billion has been approved by Congress this year.

Over time, this funding will allow the linking of cities and regions together in a seamless rail network that will provide Americans with a real alternative to the private automobile, Porcari said.

"This is the single largest investment in passenger rail in this nation's history," he said. "And it's only a down payment."

Porcari sees the $400 million invested in Ohio's 3C Corridor, linking the cities of Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland, as a significant investment. Daily service would be provided to more than 7 million people throughout the state.

"This is an outstanding opportunity to truly link land use planning to transportation in a way that will transform our cities here in Ohio," he said.

He also said that the service will provide thousands of good-paying jobs, helping to revive many of the state's economically-distressed areas.

"This will make Ohio's communities more liveable, more accessible, and provide greater access to employment centers than we've ever had before," Porcari said. "If you look at many of our cities in transition, we have the workforce, we have the skills, we have the factories."

Help yourself

One lesson American transportation experts have learned from the development of rail systems in Europe and in Asia is that there's no "one size fits all" approach.

Porcari said that, because the United States is a large, diverse country with diverse needs, the national rail strategy is to ask regions to identify the needs that are most important to them. These would then be weaved into the national system.

Essentially, it is a ground-up system, not a grand plan imposed by government.

"For this national program, we're going to help those who help themselves," Porcari said. "As a region, as a state, you have to get your act together because funding is scarce and time is even shorter. The regions and the states that do have their act together are going to be the ones who win here."

This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will complete its national rail plan, which will help guide federal investment, and propose new ways in which freight railroads can cooperate closely with the states and Amtrak.

"The reality is that high-speed rail in America is going to have to co-exist with our freight network, and both of them are going to have to thrive if we're going to be successful," Porcari said.

The plan will also outline how the rail network will be coordinated with other modes of transportation.

"We have the opportunity to do it differently," Porcari said. "Because the future is intermodal. Our planning and funding models for rail and other forms of transportation don't really reflect that right now."

Reviving American manufacturing

The FRA has also been meeting with American suppliers to see how quickly they can get rail components into production.

So far, suppliers are buying into the idea that key components need to be standardized, both for cost and safety reasons.

Porcari said that rail-related manufacturing in the United States is a shadow of what it used to be, and a fraction of what it needs to be. The federal government's goal is "Buy America" for its entire high-speed passenger rail network.

"We are not talking about assembling foreign components here in the United States," he said. "We're talking about re-establishing a home grown manufacturing supply chain. Because it's high time we gave American workers the chance to make projects from start to finish. We intend to capture every piece of the high-speed rail value chain."

A 'visible' public good

It could take as long as three or four decades to build out the entire system.

Porcari said that, in his opinion, it's the classic definition of a public good.

"I would argue that it's going to be absolutely necessary, economically, environmentally, socially," he said.

And unlike some other investments, transportation infrastructure's benefits are clearly visible.

"The beauty of transportation is that we can literally show the projects that people get," Porcari said. "They can ride in or on or fly over what they're getting for their hard-earned tax dollars. So, unlike some other public investments that are much needed, in transportation, if we do our job right, people will see the value that they get."

But he cautioned that people will need to see results to keep the program's momentum going.

"When we started the Interstate system, we didn't have all of the funding for it," Porcari said. "We didn't even have a fraction of the funding for it. What we did was, we did have an identified revenue source, and we had the beginnings of a program that was later stitched into a national vision. And as those first projects were completed, people saw the value that they were getting. And there was widespread support throughout the country for that national network. I think you're going to see the same thing for high-speed rail."

Previous reading on BC:
EACC passenger rail conference brings praise, outlines strategies (5/10/10)
Implications of 3C, high-speed passenger rail subject of EACC conference (4/26/10)
EACC to hold public transportation conference here (4/6/10)
Cincinnati to apply for federal transportation grants (4/1/10)
ORDC study: 26,000 Ohio residents employed due to rail, with more to come (3/30/10)