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With State Delay, High-Speed Rail Funding Stuck At Station

DON STACOM

December 04, 2009

HARTFORD - Alarmed by a potentially costly delay in the plan to land millions of federal dollars for high-speed rail service, House Speaker Christopher Donovan has asked Gov. M. Jodi Rell to speed up her share of the work.

"The governor says she's for this project, she's made it a pillar of her economic development plan, and I take her at her word," Donovan said Thursday. "Right now it's time to work on this."

Rell's office and the state Department of Transportation maintained that the delay a monthlong postponement in an authorization to borrow money isn't a serious concern.

But Donovan and U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a high-profile sponsor of the Springfield-to- New Haven project, both asked Rell Thursday to get the financing back on track.

Donovan said he's concerned that if Connecticut misses a key deadline, it will lose ground to other states in the competition for federal funding. He sent a letter asking Rell to get the financing arranged right away.

Dodd said there's need for "urgent action" and asked the governor to expedite the financing during a telephone conversation with her Thursday, a Dodd staffer said.

"Now it is up to the state to hold up its end of the bargain," Dodd said in a statement after the call.

At stake is whether Connecticut can have the money and the completed engineering studies ready when the Federal Railroad Administration starts handing out the first round of $8 billion in high-speed rail grants under President Barack Obama's economic stimulus program.

Without major federal help, there's little chance the state can build a high-speed, electrified rail line estimated to cost $1 billion or more.

State Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie has said the railroad administration wants to see Connecticut put up $26 million and complete design and survey work along stretches of the 62-mile line before it will approve $80 million for an initial phase of the project. Transportation officials believe landing that money will give the state an edge in competing with other states for much bigger grants later.

But when the DOT asked for the $26 million at the State Bond Commission meeting this fall, the vote was postponed because of a dispute with a legislator. At a subsequent hearing, Marie assured Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D- New Britain, that his staff could resolve the dispute and DeFronzo predicted that the bond commission would approve the money at its Dec. 11 meeting.

But with the state's current budget deep in red ink, Rell recently canceled that meeting. Her staff said the rail proposal will go to the commission in late January.

At a legislative hearing last month, though, DOT officials were adamant that Connecticut already is on a tight timetable. About $20 million of the state money would go toward construction; the other $6 million includes design and engineering work for adding a second track in stretches where there's just one now.

James Redeker, a top DOT administrator, told legislators in November that it was necessary to get that work done fast. Without it, the state wouldn't get the $80 million in federal funds, he said.

"That needs to be done right away. If we get a grant award this winter they're talking about January-ish we have to have that done ... in time to receive the grant," Redeker told lawmakers.

The $80 million would pay for double-tracking a 10-mile stretch of a route south of Hartford. Even if the far more ambitious high-speed system isn't built, having two tracks would go a long way toward building the New Haven-to-Hartford commuter rail system that Donovan wants to build along the same corridor.

"Dual tracking will allow us to run more effective and more timely commuter rail service," Marie told legislators.

Donovan has been campaigning for Springfield-to-New Haven commuter rail service for more than a decade. He said he wants to work with Rell to get surveyors and engineering teams deployed now.

"It's a beautiful day today," he said Thursday. "They could be out there now."

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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