Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, unveiling a shift in strategy for allocating federal rail spending, sent $2 billion on Monday to passenger networks around the country after Florida had rejected the high-speed rail funding.
The money will go into Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, reflecting a shift in emphasis that could build support for the overall program. The Department of Transportation is also branding a large chunk of the grants pool as a boost to manufacturing, as it will pay for U.S.-built locomotives and passenger rail cars.
A small grant of $15 million will go towards separating tracks at Washington’s Port of Vancouver that is a congestion point for both freight and passenger trains.
Most remaining grant funds will go into the Midwest, which is making major upgrades to freight-owned tracks so passenger trains can run 110 mph on lanes that connect Chicago with St. Louis to its southwest and Detroit to the east. Illinois already announced it alone was receiving $186.3 million. The DOT is also aiming new money at California’s plan to build the nation’s first truly high speed rail line, which it already supported in earlier grant rounds.
Critics, including some powerful voices in Congress, have long said the Northeast Corridor should have been the main focus of high speed and intercity passenger rail grants from the start, to convert the nation’s busiest passenger rail route into a higher speed and eventually a true high speed route. It has far failed to receive targeted grants.
Amtrak owns much of that lane and shares it in different zones with freight rail lines CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway. The Acela trains on the route at times hit top speeds of 150 mph though average speeds are much lower.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s guidance allowed Amtrak for the first time to seek funds on its own. The FRA said it will target “$795 million to upgrade some of the most heavily-used sections of the corridor.” The money will fund projects to “increase speeds from 135 to 160 miles per hour on critical segments, improve on-time performance and add more seats for passengers.”
The Midwest rail system gets $404.1 million in all for higher speed infrastructure projects; $300 million goes to the California high-speed plan and equipment builders get $336.2 million to make rail power and seating cars for the Midwest and California programs.
In all, the FRA allocated $2.02 billion among 22 projects through 15 states and Amtrak. The DOT will now need to nail down implementing agreements, but some of the work could proceed during the current construction season.