High Speed Passenger Rail:

Developing Viable High Speed Rail Projects under the Recovery Act and Beyond

GAO-10-162T: Published: Oct 14, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 14, 2009.

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This testimony discusses funding for high speed and other intercity passenger rail projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Recovery Act). The $8 billion that the Recovery Act provided for these projects has attracted great attention from states and others who look to develop or improve intercity passenger rail service across the country. Proponents see these projects as serving an important transportation role, by moving people quickly and safely, reducing highway and airport congestion, and being environmentally friendly. While we have found that the potential benefits of high speed and intercity passenger rail projects are many, these projects--both here and abroad--are costly, take years to develop and build, and require substantial up-front public investment as well as potentially long-term operating subsidies. This testimony focuses on (1) some principles that could guide the effective use of these Recovery Act funds, (2) some challenges that states face in establishing high speed and other intercity passenger rail service, and (3) the nature of our ongoing work on Recovery Act high speed rail projects. This testimony is based on our recent report and testimony on high speed rail and our ongoing work.

As policymakers decide how to allocate current Recovery Act funds and any possible future federal investments in high speed and other intercity passenger rail projects, several principles could guide the effective use of those funds. In our recent report and in 2005, we concluded that there is a need to (1) clearly establish federal objectives and clear roles for all stakeholders (federal, regional, state, and local governments and freight, commuter, and passenger railroads); (2) clearly identify expected outcomes; (3) base decisions on reliable ridership and other forecasts to determine the viability of high speed rail projects; and (4) include high speed rail in a reexamination of other federal surface transportation programs to clarify federal goals and roles, link funding to needs and performance, and reduce modal stovepipes that hinder the financing of transportation improvements with the greatest potential for improving mobility. Once FRA chooses projects for funding, project sponsors face several challenges. These include securing the significant up-front investment for construction costs; sustaining public, political, and financial support; and resolving outstanding liability issues. To further help Congress understand how Recovery Act funds for high speed and intercity passenger rail service can be used effectively, we are addressing the following three questions: (1) How have states that have recently initiated intercity passenger rail service overcome the challenges to establishing service? (2) How can the rail industry accommodate the increased investment in intercity passenger rail? (3) How FRA is positioning itself to implement and oversee current and any future federal investments in intercity passenger rail? The infusion of up to $8 billion in Recovery Act funds is only a first step in developing potentially viable high speed or other intercity passenger rail projects. The principles we have identified can be applied to promote the effective investment of Recovery Act and any future federal funds for these projects. Surmounting these challenges will require federal, state, and other stakeholder leadership to champion, and commitment to carry out, the development of any new or improved intercity passenger rail service. It will also require (1) clear, specific policies and delineations of expected outcomes and (2) objective, realistic analyses of ridership, costs, and other factors to determine the viability of projects and to maximize their transportation impact and other public benefits.

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