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Bonding OK Seen As Important First Step In State's Rail Plan

DON STACOM

January 09, 2010

HARTFORD - In Connecticut's campaign to scrape together funding for a new, high-speed rail system, the score as of Friday was $26 million in the bank and perhaps $800 million still to go.

But even though the $26 million will pay for only a tiny fraction of the work to improve the Springfield- New Haven rail line, advocates cheered Friday when the State Bond Commission authorized borrowing the money.

"This was an absolutely essential first step," said state Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D- New Britain, co-chairman of the General Assembly's transportation committee.

"We're ready to go," Gov. M. Jodi Rell proclaimed at the Legislative Office Building, minutes after the bond commission unanimously approved the money.

State transit leaders had warned in November that Connecticut would jeopardize its chances for federal funding if it didn't come up with the $26 million quickly.

The money will be spent on surveys and environmental studies along the 62-mile corridor, and about $20 million of it will become the state's "good faith" money to bolster its bid for about $60 million in federal stimulus aid.

Connecticut's ultimate goal is to land hundreds of millions in federal aid to rebuild and modernize the entire line so Amtrak can run 110 mph, Acela-like trains from Hartford to Manhattan and, eventually, to Boston via Springfield.

If that plan fails, the state hopes to use as much federal money as possible rebuilding tracks and signals in order to accommodate lower-speed, more frequent commuter service similar to Shoreline East or Metro-North.

Two sets of tracks will be needed to handle trains moving simultaneously in both directions. The first step would be to replace the second set of tracks, which Amtrak tore up more than a decade ago as a cost-saving measure.

The Federal Railroad Administration this winter intends to parcel out $8 billion in stimulus money to jump-start some high-speed rail proposals around the country.

Connecticut is trying to get about $60 million of that for double-tracking the line. More important, landing that first award would improve Connecticut's chances for securing future rounds of funding. Some transit analysts believe that states left out of the first round of funding will have a hard time securing any aid later on.

Also, Connecticut hopes it could get a second shot at the initial $8 billion that the Obama administration has put on the table. The transportation department believes that the railroad administration will hold back several billion in its first round of awards because very few high-speed rail projects in the United States are anywhere near ready to be built. That would give Connecticut months or even a year to refine its Springfield branch proposal.

Just to lock down the $60 million this winter, the state needs to conclude studies of the route, including some aerial surveying that had to be done before the season's first snow. The DOT said it managed to complete that surveying and is trying to expedite the environmental studies.

The $26 million in bonding was held up in October by some political wrangling, and Rell said in November that she couldn't revive the idea so soon because Connecticut was approaching its borrowing threshold.

After the entire congressional delegation warned Rell that delays could compromise the chance for federal aid, she called a special meeting of the bond commission this week.

"I commend the governor for her leadership," said state Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, a chief proponent of the rail line.

"Any further delay in authorizing this funding would have put our chances of obtaining federal support in grave jeopardy," House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D- Meriden, said. "Now we can move forward with renewed confidence on a project that can create jobs and position Connecticut for sustained future growth."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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