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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

 
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