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Secretary LaHood Praises Connecticut For Rail Project

Don Stacom

April 26, 2010

Stopping short of a firm promise, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday assured Connecticut that it stands a strong chance of landing a share of $2.5 billion in high-speed rail grants this year.

LaHood said the state has a realistic plan and could be one of the first in the nation to begin running new, 110-mph passenger trains under the Obama administration's ambitious rail initiative.

"This becomes an economic engine," LaHood said after riding an Amtrak train from New Haven to Hartford Monday morning, part of the line proposed for the New Haven-to-Springfield high-speed rail line. "You create opportunities for affordable housing, opportunities for business to take over abandoned warehouses and create jobs."

U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, Gov. M. Jodi Rell and U.S. Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, rode with LaHood aboard an Amtrak first-class conference car that had been added to the train for the occasion. The Connecticut representatives made their pitch for a significant piece of the $2.5 billion.

Connecticut wants federal aid to begin building an electrified, dual-track rail link from the shoreline to Springfield, part of a larger plan to link Boston, Montreal, New York and Washington by high-speed trains.

"We had a good run," Dodd said after the roughly 50-minute trip. "This is a terrific project. It really is about the economic growth and development of the whole region."

Rell predicted that if funding for the $800 million to $900 million project works out, high-speed trains could be running through central Connecticut by 2016.

LaHood said it would be among the first new high-speed systems in the nation. The only existing one is the Boston-to- Washington, D.C., Acela service along the shoreline.

The Obama administration has made modern, fast, intercity train service a priority, saying that rail links between key cities will bring jobs and economic development.

Dodd and Larson have spent the past year promoting the project as key to economic growth for New England. Both were stung last winter when LaHood's agency handed out $8 billion the biggest investment in high-speed train service in U.S. history but gave Connecticut just $40 million. Florida, California and Illinois received more than $1 billion.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation had asked for just $41 million, and Dodd and Larson were troubled that the state wasn't more aggressive. Rell promised that the state will step up when it goes after a share of the $2.5 million this summer.

"We're committed to getting everything done that we need to get done. It's an aggressive schedule," Rell said. "I think we can meet that aggressive schedule."

State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie told reporters he'll ask for more than $40 million this time but wouldn't be specific.

"We're not prepared to say that right now. We're going to make a responsible ask," he said at the Capitol. "This time around we will focus on the low-hanging fruit, get the double-tracking done and so forth. I don't want to get into what our overall strategy is."

Part of building the high-speed system will mean restoring the second set of tracks between New Haven and Springfield that Amtrak ripped out more than 20 years ago.

Developing the New Haven-to-Springfield link in a New England high-speed rail network will give Connecticut the infrastructure to start a Metro North-style commuter train service along the corridor, and Marie emphasized that the state will have to put up money for that. Rell said Connecticut is prepared to do that.

Larson said getting both systems operating is vital to the region.

"This is the largest 'knowledge corridor' in the country we have more colleges and universities along this corridor than any place in America," Larson said.

LaHood predicted that Connecticut will end up with high-speed rail, saying, "When a state has its act together, it's going to do well. Connecticut has its act together.

"The $40 million will be spent wisely, and there'll be more money to follow once we receive their plans."

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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