High Speed Passenger Rail:

Effectively Using Recovery Act Funds for High Speed Rail Projects

GAO-09-786T: Published: Jun 23, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 2009.

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Susan A. Fleming
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This testimony discusses the implementation of high speed intercity passenger rail projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Recovery Act). The $8 billion provided by the Recovery Act for high speed and other intercity passenger rail projects has focused more attention on and generated a great deal of anticipation about the possibility of developing high speed rail systems in the United States. These projects are seen by some as serving an important transportation role, by moving people quickly and safely, reducing highway and airport congestion, and being environmentally friendly. This testimony focuses on (1) the factors identified that affect the economic viability of high speed rail projects and (2) how the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) recent strategic plan incorporates those factors.

While the potential benefits of high speed 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. Determining which, if any, high speed rail projects may eventually be economically viable will rest on factors such as ridership potential, costs, and public benefits. FRA largely agrees with our March report. FRA's strategic plan for high speed rail outlines, in very general terms, how the federal government may invest the $8 billion in Recovery Act funds for high speed rail development. However, this plan does not establish clear goals for the federal government in high speed rail--other than establishing a "longer term goal of developing a national high speed intercity passenger rail network of corridors"--and does not define a clear federal role for involvement in high speed rail projects other than providing Recovery Act funds. As such, in our view, it is more a vision than a strategic plan. As part of a discussion to prepare for this hearing, FRA told us that it sees its strategic plan as a first step and that it intends to seek structured input from stakeholders and the public to help develop strategies to implement its vision.

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