Department of Transportation officials will quickly sort through a pile of applications as they prepare to redistribute $2.43 billion in grants, most of which came from money Florida turned down for a high-speed passenger rail project.
Although the DOT hasn’t said when it will issue awards or who might get them, past decisions indicate it will use a lot of that money to improve freight railroad-owned tracks so they can handle more or faster Amtrak passenger trains.
That way, department officials have said, the infrastructure upgrades help freight railroads as well as passenger service to operate more effectively. It means those passenger rail grants support dual Obama administration goals of getting more people and more cargo off highways and onto trains.
After Florida firmly rejected $2.4 billion in grant money last month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promptly pushed out a new grant offer that allowed other states, public agencies and Amtrak itself to apply for the money. Those applications were due April 4.
“We will have all hands on deck evaluating those (applications), and all of our staff will be looking at them,” LaHood told The Journal of Commerce after opening up the new application process. “And we’ll get decisions made very quickly.”
More than 90 grant project applications came in, seeking nearly $10 billion, from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak for its own projects, he said last week.
Now, a race is on to commit that money while GOP budget cutters in Congress try to chop some of it away. The House Appropriations Committee last week suggested cutting $1.5 billion in what it called “excessive grant funds” for high-speed rail corridors and intercity passenger rail service.
That just happens to be almost all the passenger rail grant money left over from an initial $8 billion in the 2009 economic stimulus package, something many conservatives attacked from the outset.
The $2.43 billion for new grants, the DOT says, includes about $1.63 billion from the stimulus and $800 million from additional rail grants Congress approved earlier in the fiscal 2010 budget.
The DOT had sent nearly all that money to Florida to build a bullet train service between Orlando and Tampa before the new state governor, Rick Scott, killed the project. So, the administration packaged the rejected Florida grants along with $38 million in remaining unallocated stimulus funds and let applicants compete for it.
But after Wisconsin and Ohio joined Florida in rejecting previous passenger rail grants, the DOT put applicants on a tight leash. Urged to line up non-federal matching funds, applicants also must be prepared to show strong commitments from project sponsors and other stakeholders, and must obligate the money to specific projects by September 2012.
North Carolina asked for $624 million, and made clear that its projects would improve shipment flows as well as personal travel between Charlotte and Raleigh. On March 22, the state finalized an agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway, Amtrak, federal officials and its own North Carolina Railroad on how to spend $461 million of an earlier package of $520 million in grants.
Officials there want to build on that momentum. “The program of projects was developed to ensure adequate current and future capacity is built for freight
and passenger trains,” the state said in
its latest grant documents. “The projects help ensure reliable, competitive
travel times for passengers and shippers.”
On the West Coast, Washington state wants another $120 million. It recently finished a grant implementing agreement with BNSF Railway and Amtrak over using
$590 million from an earlier grant round, and is trying to lock down spending agreements for another $161 million it was awarded.
California, the only state with an approved high-speed rail plan backed by federal grants, reportedly asked for all the latest grant money to aid that effort. The DOT, however, already said it “anticipates making multiple awards with the funding available.”
Even Wisconsin is seeking grant money, but said that is for an existing passenger lane from Milwaukee to Chicago rather than a new lane in the grant it rebuffed before.
Amtrak for the first time is eligible to apply on its own rather than have states submit its projects. The passenger rail line owns track in its busy Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, but shares most of the route with about 50 freight trains a day operated by NS and CSX Transportation.
Some congressional critics of the Obama rail program — including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla. — complain about spending limited grant funds on many low-speed lanes rather than targeting it to build a true high-speed route in the Northeast. Amtrak wants $1.3 billion in new grants mainly for “gateway” projects — including a new bridge — it says would be “critical first steps” toward bullet trains running 220 mph.
Some Northeast states — including Vermont, New York and Maryland — also are seeking some of the grant money to target passenger rail projects within their borders, and most of that is on the shared network with freight train operations.