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Former CapMetro exec now pushing urban rail for federal agency

Monday, January 25, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Passenger rail infrastructure funding has gone from no support to $8 billion in competitive grants as part of the ongoing federal stimulus package, an effort railroad agency officials intend to leverage to jumpstart a more multi-modal approach to the nation’s transportation problems.


That’s something akin to going from 0 to 60 miles-per-hour at the touch of the car accelerator. Even Karen Rae, working at the Federal Railroad Administration at the time, had to admit at the Texas Transportation Forum earlier this month that she was shocked by Pres. Obama’s sudden commitment to rail. Rail, of course, being the long-time ugly stepsister to road and air travel.


Rae is Capital Metro’s former top executive, the one who left town in 2002 after the failure of an ambitious local rail initiative. Almost eight years later – and even Rae admitted in her speech she had been in a number of locales – she saw her dedication to commuter rail vindicated with the stimulus package. Today, as deputy director of the Federal Railroad Administration, Rae is one of the highest-profile, and staunchest supporters, of urban rail.


To give that funding context, newspapers around the country continue to report how states are vying for the $4.35 billion available for school reform with the Race to the Top Funds. State lawmakers have gone so far as to call special sessions to adjust education policy. Suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly, Rae was one of the top federal officials in the spotlight touting rail.


“For too long we have kept doing exactly the same thing and hoping to get a difficult result,” Rae said of transportation spending. “We need to make smart investments. We need to add freight rail and passenger rail as the congestion manager and mitigator for automobiles.”


A recent Brookings Institute study noted that among the 25 airports that reported limited capacity – or, at the least, not enough capacity for flights – about 50 percent of those flights were trips of 500 miles or less. That gives commuter and high-speed rail the possibility to address capacity needs in the system.


“There is a niche, and there is a place for improving and enhancing our services in the passenger rail arena,” Rae said. “By the way, on that list, No. 4 was Houston, No. 6 was Dallas-Fort Worth and No. 28 was San Antonio.”


With that $8 billion infusion, it’s a new day for passenger rail, which, Rae added, is not a message that Texas officials have embraced. It only came with the last session that the Texas Department of Transportation was directed to re-establish its rail office. That has not exactly put the state – this late in the game – at the forefront of expansion. And while Rae alluded to the state’s sluggishness on rail, she would not speculate on how Texas would fare in potential rail funding.


What Rae does have is a strong commitment to a multi-modal future, with an eye on when alternatives can suggest transportation solutions. The time has come to recognize the progress the country has made on passenger rail over the last five decades and start to consider those gains part of a bigger multi-modal picture, she said.


In her comments, Rae talked about a clear national plan, one that incorporated what was on the ground but also included long-term goals for freight and passenger rail. She talked about a national, and regional view, of a transit system.


Texas would be considered a long-shot on transportation funding out of the stimulus package, given its limited activity on rail. The Texas application outlined about $1.8 billion in possible state rail funding.

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