May 14, 2019


Despite Missteps, High-Speed Rail Lines in Three States Point to Progress  (DANIEL C. VOCK | MAY 14, 2019, Governing)

The projects in California, Florida and Texas differ quite a bit from one another in size, scope and funding sources. But each one of those projects seems to be moving forward despite significant obstacles, something many rail proponents see as as a promising sign.

"This seems to be the convergence of a lot of things, all bubbling up at the same time," says Andy Kunz, the CEO of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association. People are increasingly worried about the effect driving carbon dioxide-emitting cars has on climate change, while road congestion seems to have "reached epic levels," he says. Meanwhile, private investors see the potential of making money from passenger rail service between city pairs that are too far away to drive between, but too close to fly between.

Rick Harnish, the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, says the progress on the new rail projects stands in sharp contrast to the slow processes used by Amtrak and individual states in improving rail service.

"The states have always looked at very small steps. They'll add one train and see how it does, and then add another and see how it does," he says. "The problem is that there's a tipping point, because the train has to be frequent enough that you can ride it. You've got to be able to take the capital costs [for new construction and trains] and spread them out over a larger number of trains. That has been the biggest error, particularly in the Midwest, is these tiny little steps."

In Florida, where the newly christened Virgin Trains have been running between Miami and West Palm Beach for a year, the private owners were able to prove their concept with frequent service on a short route, Harnish notes. "The strategy is incredibly different. Frankly, it's hard to imagine a state taking that type of leap of faith. And that's the problem," he says. "It's difficult to imagine, but that's what has to happen."

Of course, there's no bigger leap of faith with new rail service than the state-led project in California, which eventually promises to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling at more than 200 mph. Gov. Gavin Newsom, shortly after he was inaugurated this year, tried to tamp down expectations about the project even as the state continues to build it. Many observers interpreted his remarks as cancelling the project altogether, and soon President Trump was demanding that California return the federal stimulus money it has used to help build the new line.

But in fact, the California project has not been cancelled. "Some have suggested the state should walk away from the more than a decade of collaboration and progress that Republican and Democratic administrations and a generation of legislative leaders have made to bring the project this far," the California High-Speed Rail Authority wrote in a report issued last week. "Such a path would leave California, having spent $5 billion, with nothing but lawsuits, job losses and billions of IOUs with nothing to show for our debts.

"Given those two options, the path forward is clear," the authority added. "The California High-Speed Rail Authority will continue its efforts toward getting a working section completed in a responsible and transparent way."

The California, Florida and Texas projects all share the goal of connecting big cities with fast passenger rail service.

Posted by at May 14, 2019 3:57 AM