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Fed policy could pit rails against roads

Fed policy could pit rails against roads


The Journal Record

July 20, 2009

Rail and highway projects would draw from the same pot of money if the federal government follows through with a new system for distributing grants.

The system would overhaul the current cash distribution plan in which federal money goes to certain types of projects, such as local roads, highways or freight rail.

The old system does not work because it pushes money out the door without considering whether the projects satisfy big-picture goals, such as reducing air pollution, said Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

The idea is to create a list of national standards transportation projects should meet and to develop a system by which to judge all projects based on those standards, she said.

“It’ll take a few years to shift it around for sure,” Canby said. “We’ve done what we’ve done for a long time. It’s not going to change overnight.”

While there is agreement the policy should change, there is a debate over how to prioritize the standards and how to judge projects, said Sam Staley, director of urban and land use policy for the Reason Foundation, Los Angeles. Staley said the criteria should be kept simple and should compare a project’s cost to its ability to reduce travel time.

“It’s not just about travel time,” he said. “It’s about impact on travel demand. People need to be able to use it.”

Another point of debate is whether high-speed rail projects and highway construction should compete for the same pot of money, Staley said.

“It’s not at all clear that if you subject high-speed rail to some of these cost criteria that it would pass muster,” he said.

Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, said the policy shift should result in more money for rail projects.

“I think it’s a good thing for our transportation system overall because things have been dealt with in silos too much,” she said, “and passenger rail has been completely off the table.”

The topic is on the table at the U.S. Department of Transportation, which on Thursday announced it received $102 billion in high-speed rail project applications for the $8 billion available for rail in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Whether rail eventually would compete against highways depends on how the new system is structured, Canby said. But the proposed transportation reauthorization bill in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure would let the two compete for money in certain programs, such as Projects of National Significance.

Canby said the new system should not favor one type of project over another.

“I don’t know that you would go in with a necessary bias,” she said. “You set it up as: What do you think we’re trying to accomplish?”

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