Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is making available $2.4 billion in passenger rail grant money rejected by Florida Gov. Rick Scott so that other states can submit applications for new projects.
And they have to act quickly. The Department of Transportation said the applications will be due on April 4.
Since most states' intercity passenger rail programs use regular-speed Amtrak service in lanes owned by or shared with freight railroads, the plan clears the way for at least hundreds of millions more dollars to be spent on freight corridor upgrades. Although the money aids passenger train service, state and federal officials say the investments also increase freight efficiencies that can lure more cargo onto tracks and off highways.
In opening the money to competitive applications and new construction projects, LaHood opted not to simply redirect the money to states that already had active project plans, as he did in December when he redistributed $1.2 billion that Wisconsin and Ohio had rejected. Instead, the Federal Railroad Administration late Friday published a lengthy "notice of funding availability" for the unused Florida grant money and other funds, totaling "at least $2.43 billion."
The agency says this money cannot go to help fund activities that already received grants under the High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program, though it could be used to augment earlier-funded projects. Grants can cover up to 100 percent of a project's cost, or require a 20 percent match from the sponsor.
Given Florida's example, when the new governor turned down money after the DOT sent additional funds for the nation's first planned high-speed rail line, the FRA is making sure applicants for this new round of funding vow to complete the work.
It said applicants and any relevant stakeholders for a project "should clearly demonstrate" that they "are committed to ensuring the success of the project proposed for funding."
Now, only California has an active plan to build true high-speed rail service, but there is growing support to spend money that could convert Amtrak's heavily used Northeast Corridor - from Washington, D.C., to New York and Boston - to super-fast service.
Some in Congress also want to stop the program, and capture the savings to help cut the budget deficit or to shift the money to traditional highway spending. But LaHood said "the Obama administration's bold high-speed rail plan will create jobs, reinvigorate our manufacturing sector and spur economic development for years to come. States across the country have been banging down our door for the opportunity to receive additional high-speed rail dollars and to deliver all of its economic benefits to their citizens."
His action came just one week after Florida's Scott gave LaHood his final rejection of the money, which was to cover most of a $2.7 billion project to build a bullet train corridor between Tampa and Orlando. The state Supreme Court backed Scott's power to stop the project that had been approved by the legislature.
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.