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Key GOP Congressman Backs High-Speed Rail Line In Connecticut

By Don Stacom

January 28, 2011

HARTFORD Despite growing tea party opposition to high-speed train proposals, a powerful Republican congressman on Friday publicly endorsed building Connecticut's high-speed line as part of a larger Amtrak initiative.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the newly appointed chairman of the House railroad subcommittee, told a group of New England political leaders that he supports the proposed $1 billion New Haven-to-Springfield line, envisioning it as part of a high-speed rail network that would link Boston, Montreal, Manhattan, Albany and Washington, D.C.

Schuster cited many points of dispute with the Obama administration's national rail plan, but said Republicans ought to get behind a vast upgrade of Amtrak's heavily used Boston-to-Washington line.

"It's important to the whole nation. I'm here in support of the Northeast Corridor. I believe it's good for America," Schuster told a crowd of dignitaries at a high-speed train summit at Hartford's Union Station.

He said he endorses the proposed 62-mile spur through Connecticut into western Massachusetts, the first leg of a network that eventually could link New England cities with Amtrak's main line.

"This is the most congested region in the country. High-speed rail here could be profitable," Schuster told an audience of Connecticut's top political leaders, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and most of the congressional delegation.

Schuster's support could go a long way in determining whether Connecticut's $1 billion project gets built.

The Pennsylvania congressman last week replaced a Democrat as chairman of the House subcommittee on rail, and he'll have a significant role in drafting the next transportation funding reauthorization bill. Schuster emphasized that he wants New England to seek out private partners for its rail network, but didn't rule out endorsing more federal grants, either.

President Barack Obama had the backing of a Democratic Congress when he first handed out $8 billion in seed money for high-speed train systems throughout the country.

But that all changed with the November election. To get much further, the president now needs cooperation from Republicans such as Schuster and Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, the new chairman of the transportation committee. Both say they back high-speed rail along the Northeast Corridor because the region is so densely populated.

The conservative wing of the Republican Party, however, has zeroed in on high-speed trains as a government boondoggle.

New Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin have scuttled projects in their states, tea party activists are pressing Florida Gov. Rick Scott to abandon a proposed Tampa-to-Orlando route and some GOP congressmen are looking to slash funding for Amtrak as well as all high-speed train plans.

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, a longtime advocate for the New Haven-to-Springfield line, is working to keep those critics from derailing Connecticut's line.

"This is not about Democrats and Republicans. This is about trains," said Larson. "This is about jobs."

The most imminent threat is the possibility that Congress might try to rescind Obama's seed grants, including a recent $120 million award for Connecticut.

Larson orchestrated Friday's meeting, bringing together transportation chiefs from Vermont and Massachusetts along with U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Chris Murphy and Joe Courtney, to pitch their case to Schuster personally.

"If we're going to produce jobs that can't be outsourced, this is critical to our state," DeLauro said.

"We're here for what passes as a transportation pep rally," Blumenthal said. "For every argument in favor of high-speed rail and transportation efficiency, there are efforts to cut spending and hollow out the program. We are determined to fight."

Chris Donovan, speaker of the state House, told Schuster that robust rail service through the heart of the state would slow suburban sprawl and re-energize cities by attracting residential and business development around the stations.

"We're starting to lose our rural areas. We can preserve them and revitalize our urban areas," Donovan said.

Schuster emphasized that he disagrees with Obama's suggestion in the State of the Union address that 80 percent of Americans should have access to high-speed trains. Regions with smaller populations and lighter densities are unsuitable, he said. Building there would saddle taxpayers with huge annual operating subsidies.

Malloy didn't disagree.

"I, too, question the 80 percent. I'm wondering just about 1 percent Connecticut's population," Malloy said with a brief smile.

"Connecticut is the most urbanized of the 50 states. We have 3.3 million people and five cities with 100,000 or more. There's no place better to do this," Malloy said. "This will be one of our main economic drivers for the next 35 to 40 years."

Schuster said that he and Mica agree, and added that they won over a few skeptical freshmen Republican congressmen during an Amtrak trip from the Capitol to Manhattan on Thursday. Part of the appeal of better train service in the Northeast is more efficient air travel throughout the nation, he said.

"Seventy percent of flight delays in the country originate in the Northeast. I tell that to my [Republican] colleagues."

James Redeker of the state Department of Transportation told Schuster that better train service is crucial to coping with crushing traffic delays and projections for rising populations in Greater New York and New England states. Airports and interstate highways are already overtaxed, he said.

"There is no solution in the highway side or on the air side," Redeker said. "There's no solution but high-speed rail."

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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