The Obama administration's embattled passenger rail program got a solid line of endorsements this week, when applications poured in seeking $10 billion in grants for 90 track projects, most of which would be in corridors shared with freight railroads.
That's about four times the $2.43 billion in available grant funding, which Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood opened up for competition in mid-March. Applicants had to get their paperwork in no later than April 4.
While some requests are for what could become true high speed trains with walled-off tracks, by far most would spend the money to improve tracks and signals in freight-owned lanes, in projects that could improve efficiency for freight as well as passenger operations. For instance, Illinois, Washington state and North Carolina all have recently completed accords to spend previous grants that benefit freight and passenger service, and all three came back for more money.
Despite earlier rejections of large grant-funded projects by Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida under the High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail, LaHood said 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak submitted project funding requests. Most of this grant pool came from money Florida turned down last month.
And while opposition to the president's high-speed rail program has mainly come from some new Republican governors, plus their allies in Congress, the list of states asking for new grants includes those run by both Democratic and GOP governors. Wisconsin, which last fall turned down $800 million in grants to build a new passenger rail line, is now seeking federal aid for improvements to its existing passenger service between Milwaukee and Chicago.
"We are extremely pleased to see the bipartisan enthusiasm behind all of the requests to get into the high-speed rail business," LaHood said. The DOT listed all the states vying for the new funds. And on his DOT blog LaHood gave examples of projects already under way and how they are creating U.S. manufacturing jobs.
The grant requests also rolled in as some House leaders were trying again this week to strip out passenger rail grant funds that have not yet been obligated, as part of negotiations to either shut down the government late this week or keep agencies operating. A House Appropriations Committee plan for a short-term budget extension would remove $1.5 billion in passenger rail grants.
Despite such maneuvering, LaHood said since he opened the latest $2.43 billion grant round, "governors and members of Congress have been clamoring for the opportunity to participate. That's because they know that high-speed rail will deliver tens of thousands of jobs, spur economic development across their communities and create additional options for their citizens as the country's population grows."
-- Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.