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Federal rail grant funding: Changing the dynamics of the rail industry

Stephen R. Galati

The rail systems in America offer traveler passage between our nation’s most populated metropolitan centers and to those areas far less travelled. Although the nation’s rail network promotes energy efficiency and offers various transportation choices, the existing systems are facing critical issues. America’s rail infrastructure is aged, making many transit systems vulnerable to new security threats and unnatural acts of destruction, while the passenger rail network is fractured, often leaving passengers with exposed modes of transportation and inefficient rail corridors.

The nation’s network has also steadily fallen behind the worldwide rail leaders who offer a wider array of secure transportation choices. Taking notice of America’s loss of economic competitiveness and rail systems beleaguered with security and safety concerns, the federal government began offering transit grant funding for the protection and expansion of critical transit infrastructure nationwide. As a result of this robust funding stream, America’s rail industry and nationwide network is now being transformed to serve America’s future rail needs and enrich our nation’s safe passenger rail options.

The federal government has dynamic rail infrastructure funding programs designated for improving the security and scale of America’s rail networks. While these programs are changing our nation’s network of railroads, they are individually in a state of transition as well. The more senior program is the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Transit Security Grant Program (TSGP), which is now in transition from its current funding structure to one better fitted for the next years’ critical infrastructure needs. Another program, the Federal Rail Administration’s (FRA) High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program, is in full-gear shift from recent project funding awards to project starts and implementations. The following synopses characterize each program and the different ways each is securing and transforming the rail industry.

Transit Security Grant Program (TSGP)

As safe passenger transportation evolves in the U.S., the DHS has maintained a strong leadership position for transportation security projects and system-wide programs through the Transit Security Grant Program. According to FEMA, the purpose of the TSGP is “to create a sustainable, risk-based effort to protect critical surface transportation infrastructure and the traveling public from acts of terrorism, major disasters, and other emergencies.”

The past incarnations of this grant program have based funding awards on the passenger population sizes and geographic coverage of the transit systems. In fact, agencies have been categorized as either Tier I or Tier II awardees. Tier I awardees consist of transit agencies within the highest-risk metropolitan areas in our nation, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC. Tier I funding is stipulated by the recipient agency’s participation in a cooperative agreement with the DHS. Tier II awardees consist of all other eligible transit agencies. Although the TSGP primarily covers rail, Tier I and Tier II awardees also cover other transportation modes, such as ferry and intra-city bus systems.

Although the DHS’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget has not yet been finalized, DHS’s budget projection under FEMA is $350 million for TSGP’s FY2011 program. This projected budget indicates an increase of $97 million (or 38.3 percent) from FY2010 in federal funding allocations. This funding surge illustrates the federal focus on transit security programs nationwide and allows the TSGP to continue changing and enhancing the dynamics of the passenger rail industry.

After setting the path for industry transformation with vibrant security programs at transit facilities throughout America, the TSGP is now transforming itself to meet the shifting needs of the next cycle of awardees and their transit project demands. In August 2010, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hosted numerous TSGP stakeholder conferences to receive comments and suggestions regarding the grant program. Feedback from FY2010 participants was discussed and is being incorporated into the FY2011 TSGP grant methodology.

According to DHS, some suggested changes to the FY2011 Transit Security Grant Program include:

  • A funding eligibility limitation to only those transit agencies with more than 60,000 daily unlinked passenger trips, or that were previously in a Tier I or Tier II region;
  • Replacing the tiered funding structure and regional allocations;
    • Developing a Top Transit Asset List determined to be at the highest risk;
    • Prioritizing grant funding for diminishing the vulnerabilities to these top transit assets;
    • A funding stop gate for top asset implementation projects that do not have a funded and approved design;
    • Establishing a set-aside for capital projects for those agencies not included on the Top Transit Asset List;
    • A funding eligibility restriction for capital projects that requires appropriate levels of agency capability for conducting training, drills, exercises and public awareness.

The revised TSGP methodology and process for FY2011 is being finalized and is expected to be released by February, 2011. With the focus of funding going toward larger systems and priority projects, the future transit projects will focus on key transportation areas. Ultimately, the program will dramatically secure the most populated transit systems, using internal controls to safeguard the quick application and actualization of federal grant money.

The High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program

The High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program was inaugurated in June 2009 after President Obama’s historic declaration promoting safe high-speed passenger rail in America. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), $8 billion was allocated to launch a national high-speed rail program designed to modernize the national transportation network, promote safety and energy efficiency, invigorate domestic economic development through “Buy American” requirements, and build America’s competitiveness with other leading nations.

Grants under this program are designated only for high-speed rail projects and not for any other transportation modes. This dedicated funding source has laid a potent foundation for a vibrant high-speed rail program in America that provides commutable links between America’s major population centers.

The HSIPR program is a ray of hope for the rail industry. As already implied, America has fallen behind competitively with other countries regarding high-speed rail. As perspective, Japan’s first high-speed “bullet” train, the shinkansen, was introduced four decades ago for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and Europe’s first high-speed rail, the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), was introduced in France in 1981. Both countries’ high-speed rail networks have grown since their inaugural trains and now have mature high-speed rail systems that employ the newest technologies. In fact, Japan’s latest high-speed rail trains, called the E5 series, will be put into service in 2011 and will move passengers at nearly 200 miles per hour.

China has used new technology to build the leading high-speed rail network that is not only three times the size of Japan’s network, but also is the longest in the world. The United States, through the HSIPR program, will commence with the development of a robust national network of high-speed rail travel that hopefully will compete with, or even rival, our formidable and well-vested competitors.

Since the HSIPR program was initiated, $2.5 billion in grants have been awarded to approximately 54 organizations in numerous areas, including California’s corridors, the Detroit-Chicago corridor, the Charlotte-Richmond-Washington, DC corridor, and the Northeast Region.

Now that the government has awarded project funding and the pathway toward a secure high-speed rail system has been cemented, the HSIPR program is transitioning from a grant awarding phase to a project implementation phase. This shift is vital for revitalizing economic development in America. The investments made today in the rail road industry will swell the economic returns, as our national rail network is augmented for future travelers. With this grant funding stream being implemented throughout the country, our nation’s intercity passenger rail infrastructure, protective systems, equipment and intermodal connections are being modernized so that the United States -- like China, Japan and Europe -- can quickly move people safely from one major hub to another. Additionally, the influx of federal money into local economies will have dramatic influences in key areas of the country and ultimately offer Americans transportation choices through a reinvigorated and improved rail industry.

Overcoming agency obstacles to funding awards

Understanding the critical importance of receiving grant funding streams, larger transit systems (i.e., TSGP Tier I systems) generally have internal professionals who are concentrated on the preparation and submittal of grant applications. However, many smaller transit systems (i.e., TSGP Tier II systems) do not. With strained staffing levels and stretched budgets, many smaller agencies have difficulty preparing and submitting applications that are comprehensive and meet every federally-imposed requirement. Unfortunately, these agency obstacles result in applications denied for non-compliance or missed grant submission deadlines. Smaller agencies often decide not to apply for funding because the effort involved in preparing the documentation far exceeds their capability levels.

With the influx of federal grant monies available, many smaller agencies have realized that these funding awards are vital to their operational sustainability, especially to manage the high expenses of mitigating system threats and vulnerabilities. Agencies have begun using outside grant consultants to help prepare and submit grant applications that are complete and compliant. These grant professionals can also help transit agencies manage the grant money once awarded and facilitate the exhaustive federal A-133 grant audits. This methodology allows agencies a comprehensive and sustainable process to apply for and manage all desired grants. Ultimately, securing grant support can result in a much larger stake in the federal grant funding pool, which helps shift desired rail projects into actuality.

Conclusion

Through the available federal rail grant funding, America is experiencing a rail renaissance. Through DHS’s Transit Security Grant Program, America’s rail infrastructure is being renewed to combat physical vulnerabilities and handle the secure transportation needs of our future travellers. Through FRA’s High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program, our nation, which has fallen behind our global neighbors, is now on the precipice of high-speed rail merit and fiscal economy resurgence. Agencies are actively engaged with dedicated staff or consultants focused on capturing these wellsprings of project funding. Ultimately, this grant-supported rail renaissance has changed the dynamics of the rail industry and will leave a legacy of improved and secure passenger transportation in America.

Stephen R. Galati is a Certified Grant Writer, serving as the East Regional Marketing Manager and Senior Proposal Writer for TRC Companies, Inc., a national engineering consulting and construction management firm. More information is available at:

http://www.trcsolutions.com 

 

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