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Denial Of Stimulus Funds For Acela Won't Affect Springfield-New Haven Initiative, Advocates Say


December 18, 2009

HARTFORD - Federal officials won't approve using high-speed rail stimulus money to improve the Acela system, but that decision doesn't damage the Springfield-to- New Haven line's separate chance for funding, several rail advocates said Thursday.

"This is not a stake through the heart of Springfield-New Haven," said Jim RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative.

The Federal Railroad Administration is insisting on a full-scale, multiyear environmental review for nearly $12 billion worth of proposed improvements along the Boston-to- Washington Acela route, the Boston Globe reported Thursday. That means Acela won't get a share of the Obama administration's $8 billion in high-speed rail stimulus aid because that money is targeted at relatively ready-to-go projects.

The federal decision doesn't directly affect Connecticut's bid for some of that same $8 billion to upgrade the Springfield-to-New Haven line to accommodate high-speed, inter-city trains, according to staffers for Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. That line does not involve Acela, which runs along the coast.

Dodd has invested energy and staked some political reputation on a campaign to win federal dollars for that corridor. On Thursday, he stood by that approach, and said he'll work to free up stimulus money for Acela, too.

"Upgrading the Northeast Corridor would promote economic development and create livable communities across New England," he said. "I am committed to working with my New England colleagues to ensure that the corridor will be able to access the federal funding it needs."

Connecticut already ran into the environmental review problem for the Springfield-to-New Haven line and plans a two-part strategy to resolve it.

The state expects to learn in January or February whether it will get $80 million in stimulus grants to put down a second set of tracks along 10 miles of the 62-mile route. That's just the first stage of a far more ambitious plan to spend as much as $1 billion to double-track the entire line, improve grade crossings, install more modern signals and put up overhead electric lines to power trains at 110 mph or faster.

A few months after Obama announced the $8 billion initiative last March, the state transportation department submitted a pre-application estimating that Connecticut's project would cost $800 million. But when the deadline arrived to file formal applications, the DOT put in for just $80 million. The agency said it had concluded that most of the project still needed extensive environmental and survey work, and therefore wouldn't meet the FRA's schedule requirements.

The high-speed rail stimulus funding is part of the Obama administration's push to put people to work quickly and jump-start the economy. Projects facing protracted delays aren't likely to be funded, which creates major obstacles for big-ticket transportation projects across the country: Federal environmental regulations typically require months, or even years, of studies before the first shovel goes into the ground.

Connecticut wants to get the $80 million in the first round of funding, and then apply for substantially more in a second round, after more environmental studies are done. That strategy banks on the FRA having money left over after making its first-round awards this winter. It also assumes the state is making progress on environmental work in the meantime.

But recently, the congressional delegation cautioned Gov. M. Jodi Rell against jeopardizing the initial $80 million and perhaps a chance at subsequent funding by delaying the survey and environmental work. Rell canceled a Dec. 11 bond commission meeting at which the state was expecting to borrow $26 million: $6 million would pay for surveys, designs and environmental studies, and $20 million would be the state's "good faith" money to help land the $80 million in federal aid.

Rell has said the state simply can't borrow more this year because of the fiscal crisis. But Dodd warned Thursday that she should be aware of the consequences of a delay.

"While this does not impact the applications that Connecticut has already submitted for the development of the New Haven- Hartford-Springfield line, it should serve as a warning for our state. Connecticut will not be able to apply for additional federal funds for this important project next year if the necessary environmental work isn't finished," Dodd said in a statement.

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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