WASHINGTON, D.C.; HOUSTON; LAS VEGAS; AND ORANGE, CALIF.—A series of separate announcements this spring highlighted an increased emphasis on passenger rail and transit systems in the United States. On May 7, President Obama recommended to Congress $1.83 billion in funding for major transit projects. More than $600 million of those funds are being recommended for new projects in areas as diverse as Northern New Jersey; Austin, Texas; and Roaring Fork Valley, Colo. A list of projects and their descriptions is available online at www.fta.dot.gov/publications/reports/reports_to_congress/publications_9672.html

The spending plan, included in Obama’s budget submitted to Congress, announced recommendations by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to invest $604.3 million in 10 new or expanding transit projects—five projects under the New Starts Program, which provides federal funding for major capital construction projects, and five projects under the Small Starts Program, which funds smaller transit projects.

The plan also continues funding for 29 projects already, or soon to be, under construction that have received commitments for federal funding in previous years. Also, in a separate announcement the same week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made available an additional $742.5 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds for 11 of these projects.

An additional 13 proposals were evaluated by the FTA, but are not yet advanced enough to be considered for funding. FTA’s "Annual Report on Funding Recommendations for New and Small Starts for Fiscal Year 2010" provides information and ratings for all projects in the New Starts and Small Starts programs.

Houston light rail expansion
On May 4, Parsons announced that it was awarded a $1.46 billion-plus facility provider contract by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County for its light rail expansion project in Houston. Parsons will be responsible for designing, building, operating, and maintaining the expanded light rail system, which will include four new corridors totaling approximately 20 miles of light rail transit, 32 stations, storage and inspection facilities, and a major renovation to the existing operations center.

The design-build portion of the project will be completed by the Parsons-led joint venture of Houston Rapid Transit, which includes Granite Construction Company, Kiewit Texas Construction L.P., and Stacy and Witbeck, Inc.

The initial phase of the project is estimated to cost $632 million and includes utility work, 6.4 miles of light rail, a light rail overpass, a service and inspection facility, and the purchase of 29 light rail vehicles. A significant portion of the initial design-build work is expected to be subcontracted to local small and disadvantaged business enterprises. Approximately 25,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created during the initial phase.

At the completion of construction, Parsons will remain during the operations and maintenance phase of the project for a period of five years.

California-Las Vegas high-speed rail
On March 18, the Federal Railroad Administration signed a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the nation’s first dedicated high-speed passenger rail system. The project, being developed by DesertXpress Enterprises, LLC (www.desertxpress.com), will connect Las Vegas to Southern California and could break ground by early next year according to Tony Marnell, chairman/CEO of Marnell Consulting, LLC, an investor in DesertXpress.

Operating at speeds as fast as 150 mph on exclusive tracks along I-15, DesertXpress trains will make the 180 mile trip between Las Vegas and Victorville, California in one hour and 20 minutes, the company said. According to the EIS, DesertXpress is expected to carry more than 10 million people per year by 2015 and more than 16 million people by 2030. Ultimately, the system will have a capacity of more than 60 million people per year.

The preliminary capital cost for DesertXpress is estimated to be $3.5 billion to 4.0 billion, including design, construction, trains, systems, testing, and commissioning. Construction of the project is estimated to take as long as four years, beginning in 2010.

The first phase to Victorville, Calif., will be designed to allow DesertXpress to extend its service to the voter-approved California High Speed Rail System link to Palmdale, which is situated approximately 50 miles from the Victorville station. DesertXpress officials said that by designing the system to share existing transportation corridors, primarily I-15, it avoids environmental and community impacts in the highly traveled corridor between Nevada and Southern California.

Approximately 180 miles of the route will be primarily alongside I-15. Therefore, most of the track will use public rights of way on property administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and the Nevada and California state transportation departments.

"The concept of shared transportation corridors maximizes the people-carrying capacity of the freeway right-of-way without the enormous expense and overwhelming environmental impact of adding freeway lanes," Marnell said. "The majority of travelers who use DesertXpress will represent a major shift in the American mode of transportation.

Study assesses reopening intercity Amtrak service
J.L. Patterson & Associates, Inc., a civil/trackwork/structural engineering firm headquartered in Orange, Calif., was awarded a contract to assist Amtrak in analyzing the feasibility of re-opening intercity passenger rail service along the former Pioneer Route, which served Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The study will contain factors such as operating and start-up costs, projected state subsidy requirements, route infrastructure needs, projected revenue, ridership forecasts, and proposed schedules, as well as objectively assess the potential of re-establishing passenger rail service along the former route.

The Pioneer Route stopped revenue service in 1997 because of low ridership. However, with the increased cost of gasoline and overall resurgence of rail travel, Amtrak is looking at the possibility of establishing the route once again. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes an appropriation of $1.3 billion to enable the Secretary of Transportation to provide grants to Amtrak for investments in capital security including life safety improvements, repair, rehabilitation, or upgrade of railroad assets or infrastructure, and for capital projects that expand passenger rail capacity, including the rehabilitation of rolling stock.