WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing a proposal for a multi-year transportation bill that will talk about the importance of developing “institutional capacity” to support a national high-speed rail network, a federal rail official revealed Wednesday night at a conference here.
Speaking at the North America Strategic Infrastructure Leadership Forum here, Karen Hedlund, chief counsel for the Federal Railroad Administration, said that Obama’s multi-year transportation proposal will include a rail title that addresses developing a cohesive rail effort from the patchwork of stakeholders in the nascent U.S. high-speed rail sector.
She made the remarks after an audience member raised concerns about the disparate levels of experience, planning and development, and funding and financing ability that exist among the many federal, state, and private-sector stakeholders.
The FRA has been working on a national rail plan, hosting outreach events across the country after releasing a preliminary plan last October.
The agency’s next step is to identify corridors or regions in a few categories that are suited to different kinds of rail infrastructure, Hedlund said. These categories include express, regional, and emerging or feeder corridors.
The administration has been trying to develop both freight and passenger rail, providing grants earlier this year through the stimulus law and readying another set of grants from $2.3 billion appropriated by Congress.
Another federal official at the conference said that while a number of companies have been enthusiastic about helping to develop high-speed rail projects, they have been unable to come up with detailed financing proposals.
“We have not been able to move forward with actually designating any private-sector partners,” said John Wells, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Transportation and former FRA deputy administrator. Though the DOT has received expressions of interest from private entities, none of them have offered a fleshed-out financing plan, he said.
But rail is likely to attract plenty of private capital as the national initiative becomes more clear and defined, speakers said.
“Rail has everything that [public-private partnerships] want,” said Nicholas Hann, executive director of Macquarie Capital Markets Ltd.
Hann said that P3s would benefit from the steady revenue stream provided by user fees.
He noted that one such rail project already exists, the Denver Eagle P3, that is part of a multibillion-dollar program to build new commuter and light-rail service in the Denver area. The Denver Eagle P3 includes private construction of about 34 miles of commuter rail and a new maintenance facility for commuter rail vehicles. The Regional Transportation District will make lease payments, according to the RTD.