Intercity Rail Projects Chug Along

Intercity Rail Projects Chug Along

The Department of Transportation appears poised to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into rail lines operated by major freight railroads to help build up intercity passenger rail service and use up money rejected by other states.

In the same week that Florida’s governor finally rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding to build the nation’s first super-fast passenger rail line, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo told officials from various other states, “We’ll be looking at a very fair, transparent process to quickly reallocate those dollars.”

Szabo, speaking at a rail session of a Washington, D.C., conference of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said a reallocation of the Florida funds “could end up being tremendous opportunities for people around this table.”

But many of those states already are moving ahead. Thirty-five states are still working with the Obama administration’s High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told AASHTO on March 2. Nearly all those projects, and approximately half the money allocated so far, involve regular-speed Amtrak service that uses freight-owned tracks or lines owned by states or Amtrak but shared with freight trains.

When Florida’s Supreme Court on March 4 backed Gov. Rick Scott’s ability to stop the Tampa-Orlando project even though it had been approved by the Legislature, LaHood said, “I know that states across America are enthusiastic about receiving additional support to help bring America’s high-speed rail network to life and deliver all its economic benefits to their citizens.”

On Feb. 26, Washington state nailed down a long-sought agreement with BNSF Railway, Amtrak and the FRA so it can start spending a $590 million grant to improve BNSF’s north-south tracks for more frequent Amtrak service between Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Paula Hammond, the state’s transportation secretary, told The Journal of Commerce she hopes to reach agreement this month to use an additional, $161.5 million grant, which officials said would go into similar work north of Seattle toward Vancouver, British Columbia.

That includes track and signal upgrades, plus new sidings so trains can pass each other. Hammond said the plan is designed to ensure passenger operations don’t impede freight moving along the corridor connecting major ports in the Pacific Northwest, but state officials also think the work will improve the flow of freight traffic.

Washington was awarded the extra $161.5 million after new Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio turned down grant-funded Amtrak projects, and LaHood redistributed $1.2 billion from them to other states. With Florida rejecting double that amount, Washington is one of many states whose officials say they would like some of that money.

Some states in the U.S. Northeast hope the DOT will use at least some of the money to start a true high-speed service in the densely populated area that is already Amtrak’s busiest lane. Most states, however, are mainly trying to add or improve regular Amtrak service between their cities; they already have money targeted for the work, but could add more projects if more money came their way.

North Carolina’s DOT has been trying to finalize a deal with Norfolk Southern Railway, Amtrak and federal officials that could obligate more than $500 million in grant money to build a double-track lane between Charlotte and Greensboro.

State Transportation Secretary Gene Conti has said such a deal could deliver regional and even national improvements to freight operations as well passenger rail, because it would eliminate some rail crossings and build other infrastructure to speed up service in part of a double-stack intermodal corridor NS is building. Eventually, the state hopes to connect with fast passenger services running from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., and some lanes could introduce true high-speed trains.

Although Wisconsin and Ohio in the nation’s heartland rejected federally backed projects, Illinois and Iowa are moving ahead.

Union Pacific Railroad and Illinois are spending more than $1 billion in federal funds to lay concrete crossties and make other changes to support 110-mph Amtrak service between Chicago and St. Louis, which is also a busy freight corridor.

Iowa has federal aid lined up for its planned Iowa City-Chicago passenger service, using tracks owned by the freight-hauling short line Iowa Interstate Railroad and connecting in Illinois to BNSF.

Iowa’s new governor, Republican Terry Branstad, did not join his counterparts in the three states that have rebuffed passenger rail grants, but, like Florida’s Scott, he doesn’t want state taxpayers to be stuck with an ongoing operating subsidy, which for Iowa would be $3 million a year. How that issue plays out also will determine if he allows state matching funds to be spent on construction for the initial grant.

Nancy Richardson, Iowa’s transportation director, has been meeting with local governments and businesses that could benefit from the Iowa City Amtrak service, perhaps to develop a public-private plan to replace the state’s ongoing subsidy costs. Iowa’s Legislature is meeting through April 29, and Richardson is slated to brief Branstad on March 21 on a range of funding options he could use to keep the project going. If he likes the choices, he’d have time to work out a plan with state lawmakers.

Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com.