U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena is supporting the idea of providing freight service in Rhode Island by building a third rail line alongside Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Mr. Pena announced his endorsement of the $100 million project Friday after a Washington meeting with Gov. Bruce Sundlun; Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I.; and Dante Boffi, the state's transportation director.He also directed his staff to seek a design for completion of the Northeast Corridor improvements that would permit the third rail's construction.

Amtrak must approve the third rail line. Mr. Pena sits on Amtrak's board and writes the company's subsidy budget, so his support of the project is significant.

Gov. Sundlun said the project, still without financing and many steps away

from approval, was one of the top two economic development priorities in the state.

As part of the state's plan, an automobile shipping terminal would come to Davisville. That would require freight capacity far beyond what's now available.

A change of heart at Amtrak remains vital because the company has been slow to make improvements in the New York-to-Boston portion of is line.

As planned, any freight line construction would have to wait until the improvements, designed to reduce transit time along the line dramatically, are in place.

Gov. Sundlun said Mr. Pena will ask Amtrak to cooperate with state officials in the rail improvement design to ensure that it will accommodate the future third rail feature that the state hopes to finance later through a variety of federal, state and private sources.

Without such cooperation, shippers might face the tougher job later of rebuilding expensive, hard-to-alter features such as bridges with clearance too low for modern railcars.