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Connecticut Gears Up To Lobby Washington For Railroad Seed Money


December 28, 2009

HARTFORD - When the Federal Railroad Administration doles out high-speed rail grants this winter, it will be sending plenty of rejection letters, too.

The agency has $8 billion in seed money for new high-speed passenger rail lines, but after that, the math gets ugly. Twenty-four states are battling for a piece of its bankroll, and their requests add up to $57 billion.

Will Connecticut be one of the states receiving a "sorry, but ..." notice?

State lawmakers and congressional leaders say they'll spend the next several weeks lobbying the railroad administration for a $64 million down payment on the proposed Springfield-to- New Haven line, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell is scheduling a special State Bond Commission meeting for early January to bolster the state's case. Despite a huge budget deficit, Rell and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly will scramble to approve $26 million in borrowing.

"We're committed to this," Rell said on Christmas Eve. "We want to get that done as soon as possible."

Rail authorities acknowledge, though, that Connecticut's answer might hinge on factors outside its control shortcomings in other states' plans.

For instance, California, the long-acknowledged front-runner in the competition, last week admitted that its 220-mph bullet train would cost $43 billion to build, $9 billion more than it was estimating as recently as November. The Los Angeles-to- San Francisco ticket that sounded like a bargain at $68 is now projected to cost $105 and the system is still 10 years from opening.

Earlier this month, Minnesota conceded that the bill for a Minneapolis-to-Duluth line could total $1 billion. Just two years ago, advocates said that it would be under $400 million.

On the other hand, Florida's state government this month broke a long political deadlock that had threatened to kill its chances in the competition. The state pumped more than $100 million into a commuter rail project to demonstrate to the railroad agency that it's serious about building a Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed line; it's requesting more than $2 billion in federal grants.

The Race For Cash

When President Barack Obama announced his national rail initiative in April, the plan was to divvy up the $8 billion of stimulus money by early fall between a few of the 10 high-density corridors where the railroad agency calculated that fast intercity train service could best succeed.

But the agency didn't get more manpower to manage its windfall and hasn't kept pace with the flood of requests. Some states far from those 10 identified corridors such as Utah, Arizona and Nevada got into the competition. The FRA had to postpone its decisions, and it now says it will distribute grants in midwinter.

For Connecticut, that delay is welcome. State transportation officials thought that the 62-mile Springfield-to-New Haven line already met the agency's requirements for environmental and engineering studies, but learned otherwise after submitting an $880 million "pre-application."

That plan reached in conjunction with Amtrak, which owns the rail bed was to double track the line, rebuild the viaduct at Hartford's Union Station and the Connecticut River bridge in Enfield, add modern signals, improve grade crossings and install overhead electric lines to propel trains up to 110 mph.

That's still the goal, but the state Department of Transportation's strategy now is focused on doing environmental reviews that will satisfy the railroad agency as well as the Federal Transportation Administration, which might pay part of the costs. Connecticut isn't ready to apply for the full $880 million now; instead, the plan is to fast-track the engineering and environmental studies to be ready for a second round of grants.

Addressing a General Assembly committee last month, Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie said, "The expectation is that on this first round of applications, the federal government will allocate in the $1.5 [billion] to $2 billion range. We're hoping to have a stab at what remains of that."

The $64 million that Connecticut is seeking now and the $26 million in state borrowing would mostly be used to restore a second set of tracks on a 10-mile stretch south of Hartford. Amtrak tore up those tracks as a money-saving measure more than 15 years ago. The grant would also pay for engineering work to prepare the rest of the corridor for double tracking. Most important, it would give Connecticut initial federal funding and a better chance for a share of the $1 billion or more a year in follow-up funding that Obama plans over the next five years.

Marie acknowledged that getting the second set of tracks would benefit Connecticut regardless of whether high-speed trains ever run on the line. State leaders have wanted to establish moderate-speed commuter service similar to Metro-North on the shoreline between New Haven and Springfield, and any improvements paid for through the FRA's high-speed grants would help that initiative, too.

"There's a win for the commuter side based on the high-speed funding," DOT Bureau Chief James Redeker told the committee.

The DOT says that commuter rail service would need funding by the state, Amtrak, the federal railroad and transportation administrations and possibly Massachusetts. Many state political and business leaders are more interested in establishing commuter service than the high-speed system, especially because commuter trains could bring economic development to communities along the line such as Enfield, Windsor, Meriden and Wallingford with stations. High-speed, inter-city Amtrak trains wouldn't stop there, but the much more frequent, lower-speed commuter trains would.

State Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, is eager to see work start ideally for both commuter and high-speed service.

"With this economy, we've got to get some jobs going," McCluskey said last week.

"It's not just the anti-gridlock aspect," state Rep. Tom Kehoe, D- Glastonbury, said at the November committee meeting. "Regular, reliable commuter service ... would encourage employers to locate downtown so people could get here and not worry about parking."

At the same time, prospects might be fading for a mega-network of high-speed trains linking Boston, New York, Albany and Montreal. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said earlier this year that such a system would be an economic powerhouse for New England and especially for Hartford.

But while other sections of the country assembled detailed and highly coordinated regional proposals to show Washington, New England lagged.

At a meeting with a senior federal railroad administrator in Vermont, transportation commissioners from the six states put forward plans that often had little to do with each other.

And a provincial leader from Quebec indicated that Montreal hadn't been consulted yet.

Since then, New Hampshire's legislators got into a bitter dispute with the company that owns part of the proposed high-speed route through their state.

As a result, the state didn't apply for FRA funding and the Boston-to-Montreal link was, at least for now, lost.

Marie has said that the big-picture plan is important.

"When we talk about the Springfield-New Haven line, we're not just talking about connecting Hartford to New Haven and Hartford to Springfield but connecting to the rest of New England and connecting Hartford to Washington, D.C.," Marie told legislators in November. "Having a one-seat ride from Hartford to Washington in four hours would be a very attractive mobility option for people."

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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