Feds to redistribute rail funds if rejected by states such as Wisconsin

From the Capitol Times, November 16, 2010

The Obama administration plans to reallocate money designated for high-speed rail if the states granted the funds reject them.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the announcement Monday night to hundreds of politicians, businesspeople, urban planners and rail enthusiasts gathered in New York City to assess the state of high-speed rail in the United States during a three-day conference sponsored by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) trade group.

Critics have said that high-speed rail would not attract enough riders to justify the multibillion-dollar price tag. They have also questioned spending billions of dollars on infrastructure for the network when the nation’s economy is fragile and governments are struggling with deficits.

But rail advocates sketched a vision Monday for a 17,000-mile network linking U.S. cities with electric trains capable of traveling at 220 mph.

USHSR President Andy Kunz said the transportation network would cost $600 billion over the next 20 years.

Two recently elected governors have announced plans to scuttle high-speed projects in their states. Wisconsin’s Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker wants to kill a high-speed rail project that would link Madison and Milwaukee and said he would use the money to improve roads. The state has been awarded $810 million for the project.

Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich, also a Republican, asked the Obama administration for permission to repurpose $400 million in high-speed rail funds for highway projects. Kasich says Ohio doesn’t need the project. But LaHood said Ohio would forfeit the money it doesn’t use for high-speed rail.

When the state funds are rejected, LaHood said Monday night, they will be redistributed “in a professional way in places where the money can be well spent.”

There are “a lot of states that would like to have access to that money,” he said, and reallocation will be done quickly.

LaHood recently announced awards of $2.4 billion for high-speed rail projects in 23 states, including $45.4 million for Virginia to help fund studies and preliminary engineering in order to improve service between Richmond and Washington. It was the second round of awards, as the administration previously distributed $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail projects. California has received the bulk of the awards — about $3 billion total.

“This is not your grandfather’s train,” Kunz said. Videos and displays of sleek trains with colorful interiors were on view around the conference area at the New Yorker Hotel, as companies that hope to profit — from Alstom to Siemens to Kawasaki — advertised their technology.

The forum includes discussions on transforming the country’s rail corridors, insights from companies and government leaders that have worked on high-speed rail in other countries, and presentations on financing, construction and legal issues.

Rail advocates acknowledged that they have more work to do to win support for transforming the nation’s rails.

“The honeymoon is over,” said Stuart Sirota, owner of Baltimore-based TND Planning Group, an architecture and urban planning firm.

Sirota said advocates need to do a better job of explaining why high-speed rail is needed.

“Train travel has been erased from our national DNA,” he said. “Rail has become a foreign concept to most Americans.”

Bill Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), said his group wants the federal government to pay for 90 percent of the cost, using funding for the interstate highway system as a model.

High-speed rail advocates see the new network as a way to lessen the country’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Former transportation secretary Norman Mineta told attendees that high-speed rail would also boost the economy, create jobs and relieve congestion.

“The year ahead will be the defining one for transportation,” Mineta said.

Outgoing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered a video message to the conference saying that having trains travel at the same speeds they did 100 years ago is “embarrassing.”

Democratic New York Gov. David Paterson, who is also leaving office, said the discussion of high-speed rail actually includes two types of improvements: upgrading corridors to allow trains in some areas to increase their speeds to 110-120 mph, which is proposed for the Richmond to Washington corridor, and the so-called bullet trains that “we see in Japan.” Such trains would enable travel from New York City to Albany, about 140 miles, in 28 minutes, he said.

Amtrak unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year vision for high-speed rail on the East Coast this fall that would reduce travel times in the Northeast, Amtrak’s busiest corridor.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has said the rail agency envisions a system that would reduce the travel time between Washington and New York City from 162 minutes to 96.

Amtrak recently named its first vice president for high-speed rail, veteran transportation professional Albrecht “Al” Engel, who serves on the APTA’s board of directors. Engel is to participate in a panel Tuesday that addresses the feasibility of U.S. train travel in the Northeast mirroring the speeds of bullet trains in Japan and Europe.

Currently Amtrak’s Acela trains operate as fast as 150 mph, but south of New York, the Acela runs at 135 mph because of curves, tunnels and station stops.

However, everyone — even LaHood — acknowledged that there’s still a lot of work to do. The transportation secretary was rushing back to Washington after a reception — via airplane. He said he didn’t know whether there was a 9 p.m. train to Washington, but he knew there was a shuttle.