Rolling Out the Rail Grants

Rolling Out the Rail Grants

The Obama administration isn’t letting a little politics-altering event like midterm elections get in the way of its passenger rail program.

The Department of Transportation in late October spread around $2.5 billion in new grants for a high-speed rail program, even as an election bore down with the potential to sweep into office new governors with the power to derail some of the administration’s plans.

The Oct. 28 awards under the high-speed rail program follow $8 billion the DOT allocated from the 2009 economic stimulus for projects often mired in wrangling by states and freight railroads over contract terms.

The latest round of grants, taken from the 2010 budget, sets aside $1.5 billion for bullet trains planned in Florida and California. Most of the remaining $1 billion will be spent in freight-owned rail corridors for enhanced Amtrak passenger service, with the idea it also will aid freight operations.

In all, 23 states will share the money. The DOT said 32 states had submitted applications for projects totaling $8.8 billion. “Demand for high-speed rail dollars is intense, and it demonstrates just how important this historic initiative is,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “States understand that high-speed rail represents a unique opportunity to create jobs, revitalize our manufacturing base, spur economic development and provide people with an environmentally friendly transportation option.”

The grants include $230 million to Iowa to establish Amtrak service between Iowa City and Chicago. The money will improve 131 miles of freight track to allow 79-mph passenger trains.

Michigan will get $150 million to buy and restore 135 miles of low-speed track between Kalamazoo and Dearborn owned by Norfolk Southern Railway.

Other grants include replacement of rail bridges in Wadsworth, Ill., on the Chicago-Milwaukee, Wis., corridor, plus planning and project funds to spur north-south passenger service in North Carolina and Virginia.

LaHood did not tie the grants to the looming election, but it was the second time in a week he announced money for a long list of infrastructure projects. On Oct. 20, the DOT unveiled $600 million in “TIGER II” grants for 42 near-term projects ranging from reopening a port-owned rail line at Coos Bay, Ore., to a marine highway project for Port Manatee, Fla. Many of the Oct. 20 grants went into projects involving freight rail improvements, in keeping with the administration’s vision of shifting more people and goods onto trains.

That was also the case a week later. DOT Undersecretary for Policy Roy Kienitz said the money that upgrades freight rail tracks and signal systems for passenger trains also helps the freight railroads carry goods more efficiently.

“In order to run good quality, high-speed rail on freight tracks, you need upgraded signaling systems, more sidings for passing, sometimes double- or triple-tracking — basic infrastructure, communications, stuff like that,” Kienitz said. “Those are all things that benefit the railroad” as well as improve passenger train speeds.

Kienitz said the negotiations over grant implementing contracts with freight railroads include discussion of “the physical design of that stuff. And they want to make sure that it’s helping them in addition to helping us.”

Even so, freight rail executives have given a mixed response, embracing the dual use of their rail rights-of-way in return for large public investments but wary of being locked into passenger service targets or having their freight operations take second billing.

In several states, Republicans running for governor or other positions also have criticized the Obama passenger rail vision as big-government central planning that could saddle state budgets with long-term support costs without enough payback to their overall transportation systems. Once in office, they could slow or even stop some projects, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did last month on a tunnel plan under the Hudson River into New York City.

LaHood recently said he was “not at all” concerned the DOT could lose some of its planned passenger rail corridors, and told reporters “we’re very close to agreements” to implement passenger rail grants from the initial round. Construction already has begun on one of those major corridor projects under just a framework deal that would allow 110-mph Amtrak service on Union Pacific Railroad tracks between St. Louis and Chicago. James R. Young, UP’s chairman, president and CEO, said he is spending money for a UP track-laying train to work there while negotiating a final accord.

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