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States seek slice of high speed rail funding

(The following story by Christopher Conkey appeared on the Wall Street Journal website on August 25, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — States applied for billions of dollars for passenger-rail projects Monday, marking the start of a stimulus program designed to kick-start high-speed rail service in the U.S.

California alone submitted 42 applications, seeking $1.1 billion, according to Bill Bronte, rail division chief at the California Department of Transportation. Virginia asked for $75 million to lay 11.4 miles of track along the busy I-95 corridor south of Washington, D.C. North Carolina applied for six projects totaling $76 million, including work needed to establish faster passenger rail service heading north from Raleigh.

Federal Railroad Administration grants will be awarded beginning in late September or early October, said FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo.

One factor that could influence the FRA's decisions is how much money the states themselves are willing to contribute. Patrick Simmons, rail chief in the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said the state is offering to spend $16.6 million on top of the $76 million it is requesting. Mr. Bronte said California has spent $1.8 billion on intercity rail service since 1976, and California voters last year approved an additional $9 billion in state borrowing for high-speed rail service.

Despite the enthusiasm for rail service, the U.S. isn't likely to catch up anytime soon with Europe or Japan where some passenger trains zip along as fast as 200 miles an hour. Rather, many grants from the $8 billion stimulus program will likely go to projects with trains traveling no faster than 79 miles an hour, often because they share tracks with slower-moving freight trains.

Mr. Szabo said the program should be viewed as the beginning of a lengthy undertaking, akin to the decadeslong effort to build the interstate highway system.

"The states are all enthusiastic and feeling very competitive about the grants," Mr. Szabo said. "People need to understand this isn't about winners and losers...this is simply the beginning."

Still, federal funding for passenger rail could increase substantially in the years ahead. Congress is considering a spending bill that could add as much as $4 billion to the government's high-speed rail effort next year. And Mr. Szabo said the administration "intends to transform the way Americans travel."

States vying for a slice of stimulus funding have similar intentions. Illinois wants to reduce travel time on Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis to four hours from the current 5-1/2 hours. That would make train travel between the cities faster than driving, a critical threshold in the eyes of state planners.

Illinois officials are working with Nebraska-based Union Pacific Corp., the freight railroad that owns the track that Amtrak uses. Bob Turner, senior vice president at Union Pacific, said the plan is to build a second track next to the current one with new sidings that freight trains can use to let passenger trains by.

"Our goal in this is to answer the question, 'What will it take to accommodate high-speed rail on a line where we can serve our existing customers and grow?'" Mr. Turner said.

Most projects submitted Monday would make incremental improvements to existing intercity routes. The deadline for states to submit applications for new routes -- and passenger rail service with potential speeds over 110 miles per hour is in early October.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

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