The Rail Passengers Association filed the following comments in response to a Request for Information from the Federal Railroad Administration on he Corridor Identification and Development Program.
Created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Corridor ID Program will create a new framework to facilitate the development of new, enhanced, and restored intercity passenger rail corridors throughout the country.
March 9, 2022
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Federal Railroad Administration
[Docket No. FRA–2022–0006]
Request for Information for the Corridor Identification and Development Program
AGENCY: Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Department of Transportation (DOT).
ACTION: Request for information (RFI).
1. What is the appropriate role for Amtrak, in the submission and development of proposals submitted by other entities, for corridors that currently are or would be intended to be operated by Amtrak?
- Amtrak has already invested significant time and resources in developing the Amtrak Connects US 15-year vision for the National Network. It is critical that the FRA utilize and build upon Amtrak’s pre-existing work as it builds the Corridor Identification and Development Program (CIDP).
- The Amtrak Connects US plan satisfies several important national transportation goals, bringing service to 160 new communities, expanding passenger rail service in 20 states, bringing new passenger rail service to 16 states, adding 39 new routes and enhancing 25 existing routes.
- Amtrak has demonstrated the capability and willingness to provide planning and operational expertise for political jurisdictions that have yet to develop that capacity at the state and local level.
- The FRA should work closely with Amtrak to implement the findings of the BIL Sec. 22214 study to bring daily service to the National Network and restore discontinued Long Distance Routes as part of the CIDP.
2. What are the appropriate roles for FRA and other parties in the preparation of SDPs under 49 U.S.C. 25101(d), or in other Program activities?
- The FRA has already invested significant time and resources in leading the creation of regional rail plans for the Southwest, the Southeast and the Midwest, and Rail Passengers encourages the FRA to incorporate this preexisting work into the CIDP. These rail plans were based on extensive outreach to state departments of transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation modal administrators, metropolitan planning organizations, other regional or statewide planning organizations and transit operators, potential host railroads and passenger rail operators, and many other stakeholders -- including the Rail Passengers Association.
- It is key for the FRA to bring a national perspective in its work with regional stakeholders, providing planning guidance that fosters interregional connections. Enhanced levels of interconnectivity between regional corridors will drive ridership and revenue, as well as bring intercity transportation to communities where it would be difficult to justify investment as part of an isolated corridor.
- The FRA is uniquely positioned to integrate other BIL-mandated planning activities into the CIDP. One particularly relevant example: BIL Sec. 22214 directs the DOT to evaluate the restoration of daily intercity rail passenger service along discontinued Amtrak long-distance routes and any Amtrak long-distance routes that occur on a nondaily basis. Rail Passengers encourages the FRA to integrate Sec. 22214 findings into the CIDP Pipeline as they become available.
3. Where permissible, should SDPs under the Program have the option to be prepared as longer-range planning documents, so that the implementation of the new or improved service (through the implementation of the projects included in the ‘‘corridor project inventory,’’ and advancement of such projects into the project pipeline) may be sequenced or phased over time?
- The initial benchmark of success for the CIDP will be the speedy distribution of BIL funds to projects capable of providing near-term benefits to the American public. Rail Passengers is keenly aware that, for some Members of Congress, many of the rail programs established by the BIL are in an “audition period”. With that in mind:
- The initial project Pipeline that must be submitted to Congress (i.e. the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate, the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate, and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives, and the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives) within one year of the establishment of the CDIP should prioritize projects that are ready to begin construction and pre-construction activities.
- Subsequent Pipelines, to be submitted on Feb. 1st of each subsequent year, should integrate a longer-range planning perspective. From the perspective of the grassroot advocate, it is indispensable to have a network map around which to organize political and public support; to the extent the CIDP is able to make these network maps a matter of public record, it should.
- Rail Passengers will defer to the judgment of the DOT on what is achievable within a 12-month period; if the FRA believes it can accomplish both goals in the inaugural Pipeline, then we fully support the inclusion of a longer-range planning perspective.
4. Where permissible, should SDPs under the Program develop and narrow alternatives for implementing a new or improved service through the use of a planning process undertaken in advance of environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (e.g., in a manner similar to that applicable to highway and transit projects under appendix A to 23 CFR part 450—Linking the Transportation Planning and NEPA Processes)?
- One of the key issues afflicting passenger rail development in the U.S. is how long it takes to move rail projects from studies to revenue service. The Eno Transportation Center for Transportation found that, based on construction timelines alone, U.S. transit projects with significant tunneling elements take nearly 18 months longer to build than their international counterparts, while those with minimal tunneling take an average of six months longer to construct. One of the key challenges Eno identified: “overburdened and undertrained public agency staff have trouble coordinating environmental review and planning documents.”
- Rail Passengers supports a stronger federal role in streamlining these review processes and transmitting international best practices -- including, but not limited to, the standardization of network elements such as station designs, equipment, and components, and procedural or coordination mechanisms designed to streamline environmental review.
5. How should public involvement and environmental considerations be incorporated into the preparation of SDPs under the Program, and how might that vary depending on whether or not SDPs develop and narrow alternatives (as described in Question #4)?
- The CIDP should solicit public input at multiple points in the SDP process, including, at the minimum:
- Draft Purpose and Need / Problem Statement: identify key parameters including cities served, maximum operating speed, maximum daily frequency, approach to alternatives screening process; and
- Final Service Development Plan / Record of Decision: final opportunity to comment prior to FRA approval of the SDP on elements such as train schedule, general alignment, ridership forecasts, conceptual cost estimates, and potential phasing strategy.
- However, Rail Passengers does not believe that SDPs are an appropriate venue to relitigate project elements that some stakeholders may believe to be controversial. The CIDP should make an effort to identify prior points of disagreement on questions over alignment and service levels, and defer to the consensus established in prior rounds of deliberation and negotiation at the local level.
6. 49 U.S.C. 25101(e) requires that FRA consult with certain stakeholders in the preparation of SDPs under the Program. What approaches could FRA take to ensure the consultation process is effective and meaningful?
- One of the key ways the FRA could meaningfully engage with the public is to provide a searchable national database of passenger rail projects and corridor SDPs. Where this information does already exist at the state or regional level, it is often hard for the public to easily find the most up to date information. There is also little consistency across the documents, making it difficult for passenger advocates working to support a corridor that crosses state lines.
- The FRA should use a broad aperture for projects when building this database -- including, for instance a “pre-Pipeline” as proposed in Question #8 -- to help stakeholders and advocates better organize around projects that are in the early phase of development.
- Additionally, we encourage the FRA to keep this national database up to date on a rolling basis to the greatest extent possible, as opposed to simply updating it in conjunction with the statutorily required annual updates to Congress.
- The FRA has a key role to play in facilitating good-faith negotiations between host railroads and the passenger rail stakeholders. The FRA has already played this mediating role in the Gulf Coast Restoration projects, using data-driven analysis of the competing claims to determine the fair cost of accessing infrastructure and resolve scheduling disputes. While the Gulf Coast Restoration case is still before the Surface Transportation Board, we believe it provides a good model to inject transparency into what is often an opaque process.
7. Should capital projects identified in the project pipeline be required to be ready for immediate implementation (i.e., final design and construction), and be supported by a completed environmental determination under NEPA, completed preliminary engineering, and (as applicable) agreements with the relevant host railroad(s)?
- As Rail Passengers has stated previously in this document, the critical initial goal of the CIDP is the speedy distribution of BIL funding to projects that are capable of providing near-term benefits to the American public. With that in mind:
- The initial Project Pipeline that is required to be submitted to Congress within one year of the establishment of the CDIP should prioritize projects that are ready for immediate implementation.
- Subsequent Project Pipelines should apply a more expansive aperture -- whether as part of the main Pipeline or the “pre-Pipeline” envisioned in Question #8.
8. If a capital project must be ready for immediate implementation in order to be included in the project pipeline (see Question #7), should FRA establish a ‘‘pre-Pipeline’’ of projects that have been identified in the ‘‘corridor project inventories’’ included in the SDPs prepared under 49 U.S.C. 25101(d), and that are in the process of being readied for implementation (e.g., in the process of environmental review under NEPA, undergoing completion of preliminary engineering, etc.), but which are not ready for implementation?
- See response to Question #7.
9. Through what means, and in consideration of what factors (beyond those enumerated in 49 U.S.C. 25101(g)(4)–(7)), should FRA establish the order (or prioritization) of the list of capital projects eligible for funding identified under the project pipeline, as called for in 49 U.S.C. 25101(g)(3)?
While in no way an exhaustive list, Rail Passengers believes the following factors should be given considerable weight in establishing prioritization of projects for the Pipeline:
- Degree of readiness and cooperation among the entities implementing and funding the project;
- Degree to which project is capable of inducing mode-shift from travelers currently using other, more carbon-intensive modes of travel; and
- Whether the corridor brings a top 100 metropolitan area (by population) or new state onto the passenger rail network.
10. What other Program activities should be undertaken with the support of funding provided under 49 U.S.C. 24911(k)?
- Many corridors will need to conduct asset condition studies and corridor capacity analysis so that local stakeholders will better understand the magnitude of needs for the introduction of passenger rail service -- particularly elected officials who will serve as de facto “project sponsors” for the voters they report to. Since states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations do not receive federal rail planning funds on a formula basis (unlike with highways and transit), there is often no ready funding for this type of scoping work. The CIDP should look to promote and fund these types of activities where needed.
11. Should FRA consider readiness factors not otherwise described in the statute when evaluating proposals submitted for the Program, and if so, what factors would be relevant in assessing readiness?
12. In determining the readiness of a proposal, should FRA consider the degree of commitment to the eventual implementation of the proposal demonstrated by: (1) The entity submitting the proposal, (2) the proposed service sponsor(s), and/or (3) the proposed capital project sponsor(s)?
- It would be unrealistic not to consider the degree of commitment to the eventual implementation of the service when prioritizing investment. However, there are a few important caveats:
- Degree of commitment will vary at the city, county and state level;
- Many project timelines will span multiple electoral periods, leading to fluctuations in commitment at the the city, county and state level; and
- The complexity of determining the degree of commitment at multiple levels of government across multiple electoral pivot points gets exponentially more difficult with each state and county line that a corridor crosses.
- While Rail Passengers is confident that this is not the FRA’s intent, the factors outlined above could create structural disincentives to investing federal funds in ambitious, multi-state corridors. We encourage the FRA to weight degree of commitment appropriately, and let the overall characteristics of the SDP drive prioritization.
13. Of the fourteen selection criteria enumerated in 49 U.S.C. 25101(c), are certain criteria of greater importance to the successful development of an intercity passenger rail corridor?
- Rail Passengers believes the following criteria outlined by 49 U.S.C. 25101(c) are of the greatest importance in the FRA’s determination of whether an intercity passenger rail corridor will be successful:
- Tier 1:
- (1) whether the route was identified as part of a regional or interregional intercity passenger rail systems planning study;
- (3) anticipated environmental, congestion mitigation, and other public benefits;
- (5) anticipated positive economic and employment impacts, including development in the areas near passenger stations, historic districts, or other opportunity zones;
- (7) benefits to rural communities;
- (8) whether the corridor is included in a State's approved State rail plan developed pursuant to chapter 227;
- (11) whether the corridor connects at least 2 of the 100 most populated metropolitan areas;
- (12) whether the corridor would enhance the regional equity and geographic diversity of intercity passenger rail service;
- (13) whether the corridor is or would be integrated into the national rail passenger transportation system and whether the corridor would create benefits for other passenger rail routes and services;
- Tier 2
- (9) whether the corridor serves historically unserved or underserved and low-income communities or areas of persistent poverty;
- (10) whether the corridor would benefit or improve connectivity with existing or planned transportation services of other modes;
- Tier 3
- (2) Projected ridership, revenues, capital investment, and operating funding requirements;
- (4) Projected trip times and their competitiveness with other transportation modes;
- (6) Committed or anticipated State, regional transportation authority, or other non-Federal funding for operating and capital costs;
- (14) Whether a passenger rail operator, including a private rail carrier, has expressed support for the corridor.
- Tier 1:
- Rail Passengers also believes that emphasizing these criteria will be critical to the long term success of the CIDP as a federal program. For the U.S. passenger rail program to be politically sustainable, it must benefit both rural communities and major metropolitan areas.
- While “committed or anticipated State, regional transportation authority, or other non-Federal funding for operating and capital costs” is important in determining whether a project is currently ready to receive federal funds, it does not, in and of itself, determine whether a corridor will be successful.
14. What other considerations may be appropriate in evaluating proposals for corridors to be developed under the Program?
- In addition to the above criteria, Rail Passengers recommends the FRA prioritize projects using the following criteria:
- Length of time between approval of SDP and the launch of new and expanded service;
- SDPs that provide intercity rail service to a Central Business District, downtown or other densely developed area that is served by transit connections; and
- Services that provide sufficient frequencies to offer a competitive alternative to other transportation modes.
15. In general, how selective should the Program be, particularly during the period directly following its establishment? Should all proposals that meet a minimum threshold be selected for development under the Program, or should only a limited number of top proposals be selected, and if so, why?
- Rail Passengers believes the CIDP should define a vision for a national intercity passenger rail network.
- As we have already stated in our responses to previous questions, the initial goal for the CIDP must be to deliver funds to corridors that are able to obligate federal funds efficiently and deliver benefits to the American taxpayer.
- However, in subsequent iterations of the Pipeline, we encourage the FRA to work with project sponsors to develop a pre-Pipeline of projects to foster greater geographical equity for regions that are currently underserved by the intercity passenger rail network.
Respectfully submitted for your consideration,
Jim Mathews, President & CEO
Sean Jeans-Gail, Vice President of Government Affairs & Policy