If anyone thought President Obama would tuck his embattled intercity passenger rail program into a bureaucratic corner and see it dry up, the president has a far different message.
Obama told Congress he wants a big infrastructure push, to create jobs and spur the economy, with his rail plan a high priority. And top officials from the Department of Transportation spread the message at key events in Washington and New York.
That means money already in the pipeline will soon pour into freight rail networks to improve tracks and signal systems so new or faster Amtrak trains can share those lanes. And it suggests the administration is about to ask for more money in its next budget to keep funds flowing in 2012 and beyond.
Earlier, conservative critics hailed rejection of rail project funding by new Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio as the first sign that Obama’s “high-speed rail” plan was crumbling. The new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., is a sharp critic of Amtrak’s passenger rail line management and what he calls a “slow-speed” plan masquerading as HSR.
But Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo told the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington last month that DOT officials are way ahead of schedule in obligating the original $8 billion in grants that were included in the 2009 economic stimulus package.
Those are supposed to be nailed down by September 2012, he said, but all will be done more than a year before that. The DOT has already obligated about $4.3 billion, with the rest usually waiting for detailed implementing agreements between major freight railroads and the states hosting the passenger projects.
Szabo says a recent deal between Illinois and Union Pacific Railroad is “a model” agreement, and expects others around the country to come soon. FRA Deputy Administrator Karen Rae suggested much of the rest could be obligated over the next two months, after which the DOT can lock down the second round of $2.5 billion in HSR grants from the 2010 budget. Szabo said beyond the two states that rejected funds, all other projects are moving forward.
Those projects, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, will benefit the shipping world beyond simply removing cars from highways. “What this administration is doing for passenger rail will help the freight rails because of the work on track and infrastructure that is being done,” he told reporters at the SMC3 trucking industry conference in Atlanta. “The freight rails have a lot to gain from this.”
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.