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New England faces competition for federal high-speed rail funds

(The following story by Don Stacom appeared on The Hartford Courant website on August 9, 2009.)

HARTFORD, Conn. —Are the New England states really on track to land federal funding for high-speed train service linking Hartford, Springfield and key cities in Vermont and New Hampshire with Boston, New York and Montreal?

As the deadline to seek a share of $8 billion in stimulus funds closes in, a summit Aug. 3 of transportation chiefs from the six states showed they each have a plan on how to spend a share of the money.

But with stiff competition from California and a Chicago-centered coalition of Midwest states, New England has to step up its efforts quickly — and set priorities — if it is going to stand a serious chance at landing money, transit advocates agree.

"The plans discussed [at the summit] were really a collection of individual state plans. We need something far more comprehensive — the federal government has been explicit about that," said James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, a nonprofit that envisions revitalized train service as New England's strongest hope for economic revival.

"More than a compilation of proposals, they need a coherent plan — and a way to establish a regional entity to make it happen," agreed David Kooris, Connecticut director of the nonprofit Regional Plan Association.

For Connecticut, the stakes are especially high.

Federal money to build a high-speed rail system through central Connecticut would simultaneously create nearly all the infrastructure for a slower, higher-frequency commuter train operation shuttling between New Haven and Springfield on the same tracks. Without the federal dollars, it's doubtful that the cash-short states of Connecticut and Massachusetts would come up with the estimated $800 million to build the commuter rail link.

Connecticut is pitching the route as an extension of the Washington-to-Boston Acela line, since Amtrak could run 110 mph trains from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield and — if connections are built later — to Boston and Montreal. But even optimistic transit experts doubt that stimulus dollars for high-speed service would pay for all of the Springfield line; instead, they expect that if Connecticut wins a partial award this fall, it would spur the state, Amtrak and Massachusetts to each kick in money and to seek other stimulus programs for the rest.

The federal government has no interest in spending any of its $8 billion on commuter trains, but congressional leaders have talked excitedly about the prospect of connected routes where Amtrak could run trains between Albany, Springfield, Boston, Montreal and New Haven fast enough to compete with short-hop flights and driving. Some pieces of that system — notably the Amtrak- owned rails from New Haven to Springfield — could be upgraded fairly quickly. But the east-west routes through Springfield require extensive work as well as negotiations with the freight companies that own the tracks.

During a three-hour pitch Aug. 3 to Joseph Szabo, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration, the trans- portation directors of all six New England states outlined a series of ways to improve rail service. Maine was the only state to suggest it has a project ready to go — a key criterion for stimulus funding. That $35 mil- lion project, though, is only to extend Downeaster service from Portland to Brunswick with a stop in Freeport.

U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., told the summit audience that the region needs a comprehensive plan to compete against the well-organized Midwest consortium and California, which is far along in its planning.

"We only will succeed if we work as a region," he said. "We're off in the corner here and we must have that kind of cooperation."

RePass said he'll ask the New England Governors Conference next month to take a leadership role in lobbying Congress and the FRA for a share of the funding. The FRA has already received pre-applications totaling more than $100 billion worth of projects; many of those could be excluded for not meeting the stimulus criteria, but experts agree that the demand for money will still be many times bigger than the $8 billion fund. The FRA expects some completed applications this month, and will begin awarding grants later in the year.

Monday, August 10, 2009

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