DOT Obligates $300 Million in State Rail Grants

DOT Obligates $300 Million in State Rail Grants

The Department of Transportation got a flurry of rail grants locked in just under the wire last week, obligating over $300 million to projects so states could start spending them even if the federal government shut down.

A late-Friday budget deal averted the shutdown. Had it gone forward the Federal Railroad Administration would have furloughed about half its staff, leaving the rest focused on safety programs rather than administering grants.

The grants are under the administration's High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program, but nearly all the projects will upgrade tracks or otherwise expand capacity on routes shared by freight and regular-speed Amtrak passenger trains. Getting the grants approved now means work can start on many projects in the 2011 construction season.

The biggest grant award that needed an implementing agreement was for Washington state, which obligated $145 million for rail projects in Amtrak's north-south Cascade Corridor. That route uses BNSF tracks and carries a large volume of goods for the region's seaport traffic. The new grant deal uses money that Wisconsin and Ohio turned down, and adds to $590 million Washington earlier locked in.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tied the shared passenger and freight benefits to the latest round of grant accords. "We have heard the call of the American people to build the safest, fastest and most efficient ways to move people and goods," he said. The Department of Transportation said the projects "will create new manufacturing and construction jobs, spur economic development in corridors and, in the long-term, develop a national transportation network with world-class railways."

Bridge projects are some of the most costly on the rail system, and the latest grants include $60 million to Maryland for preliminary engineering and environmental analysis to replace and augment a 100-year-old Baltimore tunnel. That is on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor that it shares with freight trains, and the DOT said the tunnel is "one of the largest choke points" in that heavily traveled rail lane.

Connecticut pinned down $40 million to upgrade the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail corridor, installing 10 miles of double tracks on the Amtrak-owned, New Haven-Springfield lane. "This will help to decrease delays and improve travel time and reliability for both freight and passenger service along the corridor," the DOT said.

New Jersey's Portal Bridge plan got $38.5 million for final design to replace that 100-year-old structure with a new bridge. California will spread $22 million in federal grants among four projects, the largest of which will revamp 15 locomotives and upgrade their engines to cut emissions.

Other grants the DOT listed include the following:

--Missouri will use $3.8 million on three projects, including one to develop a state rail plan setting "priorities that enhance passenger and freight rail services," the DOT said. Also, $1.4 million will improve 13 highway-rail at-grade crossings between Sedalia and Kansas City, which adds safety while allowing freight and passenger trains to move more steadily. Another $1.9 million will aid preliminary engineering for a second main track in a busy area east of Kansas City.

--New York will receive R3.3 million to add track and rail capacity in a congested area for Amtrak using Canadian Pacific Railway tracks near Saratoga and the Village of Ballston Spa.

--West Virginia gets $1 million to create a state rail plan "to establish strategies for rail services that benefit the public and businesses."

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @jboydjoc.