Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the governors-elect of Wisconsin and Ohio they cannot redirect federal passenger rail grants to other uses once they take office, so the Department of Transportation is prepared to send the money elsewhere.
Both grants were part of the original $8 billion the 2009 stimulus law set aside to jumpstart development of an intercity "high-speed" passenger rail network. The administration recently awarded another $2.5 billion in further rail grants provided in the 2010 DOT budget for that program.
Both those state's projects also would make improvements on freight railroad-owned tracks to carry regular-speed Amtrak service, instead of bullet trains that require their own segregated track lanes. Critics say the planned passenger trains would be too slow to attract high ridership, and saddle states with future support costs.
In Wisconsin, where construction work was already gearing up to provide Amtrak service between Milwaukee and Madison, retiring Gov. Jim Doyle last week suspended the project given Scott Walker's plans to shut it down once he becomes governor.
Walker said he would instead use the $810 million in grant money to repair Wisconsin roads and bridges. LaHood this week told Walker in a letter, "I respect the power of governors to make decisions for their states. There seems to be some confusion, however, about how these high-speed rail dollars can be spent."
LaHood said connecting the cities along the proposed Wisconsin route would also "create thousands of jobs and spur economic development" through that corridor, but "we have a difference of opinion" about the project's value.
"I would like to set the record straight," he told Walker. "None of the money provided to Wisconsin may be used for road and highway projects, or anything other than high-speed rail. Consequently, unless you change your position, we plan to … wind down Wisconsin's project so that we don't waste taxpayer money."
LaHood also responded to John Kasich of Ohio, who won his Nov. 2 race against sitting Gov. Ted Strickland with a vow to kill that state's passenger rail plan, and wrote President Obama asking to use the $400 million HSR grant for roads and freight rail.
Kasich and LaHood formerly served together as Republican House members. Besides telling Kasich the money can only go to projects under the passenger rail program, the DOT chief said the stimulus had already given Ohio $1.1 billion for 492 road, bridge, transit and airport projects.
Ohio has a large manufacturing base - including steel production -- that has been hit hard by the recession and a longer-term decline in domestic factory jobs. LaHood said under the HSR program "Ohio manufacturers could benefit greatly as we build train sets and tracks, which will require wheel bearings, glass, steel and other key components as well as final assembly."
He told Kasich "I would like high-speed rail to be part of Ohio's future, and my team and I welcome the opportunity to speak with you" to go over its benefits and options. But as with Wisconsin's Walker, LaHood said if Kasich chooses not to participate, the DOT wants "an orderly transition to wind down Ohio's involvement."
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.