Busiest Rail Corridor in the Country Excluded from Largest Grants of Rail Stimulus Money

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, December 30th, 2009


By Petra Todorovich, Director, America 2050

Competition is heating up over the federal government’s $8 billion high-speed rail program, with grants due to be announced in early 2010. Leading contenders for the largest category of funding – “Track 2-Programs” for rail corridors, as opposed to site-specific projects – include corridors in California, Florida, North Carolina and the Midwest, among other smaller routes in the Northeast like the Philadelphia-Harrisburg, New York-Albany, and New Haven-Springfield.

Curiously absent from the contenders is the Northeast Corridor, which stretches from Boston to Washington, D.C., and carries approximately 250 million passengers per year – far, far more than any other corridor in the country. The Northeast Corridor is the nation’s only profitable intercity rail corridor, effectively subsidizing other rail service nationwide. It captures an impressive two-thirds of the rail-air market for trips that begin and end in New York City and Washington, D.C., and offers our nation’s only existing high-speed service (though at train speeds much lower than in Europe and Asia). As the transportation spine of the Northeast’s $2.4 trillion economy, the Northeast Corridor’s omission from this round of rail funding is, to put it mildly, a major oversight.

In fact, the Northeast Corridor was excluded from this round of funding because it lacks an up-to-date, corridor-wide Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Unlike in the case of highway projects, where those that expand capacity in an existing right of way are exempt from the EIS requirement, rail expansion plans are being held to stricter guidelines when applying for federal stimulus funding. The Federal Railroad Administration is stating that a corridor-wide EIS will be required to obtain stimulus funding for all corridors where significant improvements are being made, like the one that the California high-speed rail authority has already completed.

Thus the deadline for submitting grant applications to the FRA for Track 2 Program funding came and went in October without a grant application for the mainline Northeast Corridor – and not for lack of need. A draft Master Plan recently developed by Amtrak and 12 Northeast states contemplates $40 billion of improvements (slightly less than the cost of the proposed high-speed rail network in California) to double capacity on the Corridor and reduce trip times. This 100 percent increase in ridership is viewed as a “significant improvement,” triggering the need for a corridor-wide EIS.

The delay is particularly frustrating because of the critical role the Northeast Congressional delegation played in securing the high-speed rail funding in the first place. In 2008, Regional Plan Association worked with its partners in the Business Alliance for Northeast Mobility to educate our members of Congress on the need to pass the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) – the first multi-year authorization for passenger rail in over a decade. Signed into law by then-President Bush in October 2008, the legislation could not have been timelier. When the stimulus bill was put together in early 2009, PRIIA was the statute that allowed the appropriation of $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail. Ironically, the Northeast Corridor will see very little of that funding.

What can be done? First, we need to raise awareness that the Northeast Corridor will be excluded from this round of significant rail funding grants. The Northeast Congressional delegation should be tracking this issue closely and exerting pressure on the FRA to resolve the delay. The FRA has stated that it will take the lead on completing a corridor-wide EIS for the Northeast Corridor in cooperation with Amtrak and the Northeast states – but the FRA is stretched thin getting the national high-speed rail program off the ground. They need to set a timeline and plan for how the EIS will proceed and dedicate at least one senior level staff member full time to getting it done.

Finally, the absence of an EIS for the Corridor should not delay worthy projects along the Northeast Corridor that are “shovel ready.” The Portal Bridge Capacity Enhancement, a $1.3 billion joint project of NJ TRANSIT and Amtrak to replace the movable bridge over the Hackensack River that slows traffic on the Northeast Corridor, is not eligible for stimulus funding because the corridor as a whole has not completed its EIS – even though the Portal Bridge has completed its own project-level EIS and received a Record of Decision from the FRA! (The Portal Bridge project also cannot be completed in two years, which would have qualified it for another pot of funding.) The FRA should revise its NEPA guidance so that projects that have completed their project-level EIS are eligible to receive funding through the high-speed rail program.

The nation’s most utilized rail corridor should not be punished by its own success and logical expansion plans. Stakeholders of the Northeast Corridor – business, civic, and government leaders – should reach out to their elected officials to express their support for improvements to the Northeast Corridor and the rapid completion of required planning and environmental review.

View article in original context (rpa.org)

About Regional Plan Association
“Regional Plan Association (RPA) is an independent, not-for-profit regional planning organization that improves the quality of life and the economic competitiveness of the 31-county New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region through research, planning, and advocacy.For more than 80 years, RPA has been shaping transportation systems, protecting open spaces, and promoting better community design for the region’s continued growth.”

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