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Use the Federal Railroad Administration's free online calculator (www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/1318) to see if your community has a shot at becoming a “quiet zone,” and then contact your state DOT. Map: American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

According to a recent federal report, the United States spends 2% of gross domestic product — half of 1960 levels — on infrastructure compared to China's 9% and Europe's 5%. But whether they mean to or not, Americans do passively fund improvements.

Take, for example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Its high-speed rail program is one more step in a journey, begun with 1991's surface transportation legislation, toward what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls “a national network that, within 25 years, will give 80% of Americans the choice of traveling from downtown to downtown by train.”

It's taken the agency awhile to start distributing the $8.8 billion stimulus allocation. But since January, dribs and drabs have flowed to regions where cities are 100 and 600 miles apart; and last month, about one-quarter was awarded to 54 projects in 23 states.

Yes, even as states sacrifice planned infrastructure projects to the God of Zero Deficits, we're inching closer to a nationwide rail network that will move people and, in turn, products more quickly and efficiently.

Now don't get too excited; we won't be zipping around in 220-mph bullet trains right away, if ever. Most of the allocations so far, along with those of other stimulus programs like Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), are going toward track, signal, and bridge improvements — required prerequisites that will safely accommodate this new mode of transportation.

This is all well and good, but I haven't heard anything about how the Federal Railroad Administration will help the communities through which these new tracks will run.

You apply for “quiet zone” designation after you've done all the work (and it's a lot of work) you think is necessary to ease the administration's safety (read: liability) concerns. There are no federal or state programs to offset the cost of local feasibility studies.

So if your community's on this map, start thinking about working such costs into your capital budget as road improvements. That's what Phil Estes did when attempting to negate the need for those ear-splitting, 20-second horn blasts at 11 crossings in downtown Olathe, Kan. (For more on his story, see “Working with the railroads” on page 36 of our December 2008 issue.)

Stephanie Johnston,
Editor in Chief