LaHood says Wisconsin high-speed rail cash could go to N.C., elsewhere

By Larry Sandler of the Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin’s high-speed rail money could be on a fast track to North Carolina or other states.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told government and business leaders in the Charlotte (N.C.) area Wednesday morning that “You all are going to be in the high-speed rail business,” the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer reports on its website.

Local reporters thought LaHood meant their state would get at least some of the $1.2 billion spurned by Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker and Ohio Governor-elect John Kasich. But the U.S. Department of Transportation said he was referring to $545 million in grants already awarded to North Carolina to increase the frequency of existing trains between Charlotte and Raleigh. North Carolina applied unsuccessfully for another $4.9 billion for a high-speed rail line from Raleigh to Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., as well as additional upgrades to the Charlotte-to-Raleigh line.

“Secretary LaHood mentioned that two states may choose not to use high-speed rail grants they’ve already received, and that those grants would be reallocated in a professional manner to states where the money can be well-spent on rail projects,” an agency spokeswoman said. “However, he also emphasized that no decisions have yet been made about those reallocations.”

Earlier this week, LaHood told a conference of high-speed rail supporters in New York City that federal officials would move quickly to reallocate the $810 million in federal stimulus money allocated to Wisconsin and the $400 million allocated to Ohio, the Washington Post reported.

Walker has vowed to kill the planned high-speed rail line that is to be built from Milwaukee to Madison using the federal money. Kasich has made a similar promise regarding a planned 79-mph line that would link his state’s three largest cities.

But Walker has been trying to keep the $810 million and redirect to Wisconsin highways, a shift prohibited under current federal law. More recently, he said that if he couldn’t spend the money on roads, he would be open to spending it on existing passenger rail lines, although that also would skirt U.S. Department of Transportation procedures for allocating the $8 billion in stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail.

And Tuesday, three Wisconsin Republican congressmen introduced a bill to allow the money to be returned to the federal treasury for deficit reduction. Reallocating the money now would head off that measure before Republicans take control of the House in January.

No information is available yet on the process and schedule for reallocating the high-speed rail money, the Transportation Department spokeswoman said.