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North Carolina competes for high-speed rail funding

(The following story by Jordan Schrader appeared on the Asheville Citizen-Times website on December 29, 2009.)

RALEIGH, N.C. — The prospect of bullet trains whisking travelers from city to city at more than 200 mph, already part of life in Japan and France, has stalled for years in America's car-loving culture.

But now, with energy prices volatile and $8 billion in stimulus funds targeted at high-speed rail set to be doled out early in 2010, states are making plans for unprecedented investments in rail lines and making arguments for why they deserve a piece of the money.

North Carolina has asked for more than $5 billion of the money. The state is nearly finished with environmental study, as is Virginia.

Western North Carolina could get a sliver of that money, $3 million for engineering and environmental study on expansions of rail, to be split between a planned Salisbury-to-Asheville route and one from Raleigh to Wilmington.

States have asked for $57 billion to build high-speed rail networks, said Rob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, even though less than one-seventh of that is available.

“Japan's got one,” said rider James D'Amato Sr., a mechanic from Spindale. “I'd like to see something like that come around here.”

The potential for faster trips is welcome news to frequent train passengers like D'Amato, who on a recent trip home from a job caught an Amtrak train in Deerfield Beach, Fla., on a Thursday afternoon and didn't expect to arrive in Greenville, S.C., the nearest train stop to his Rutherford County home, until Saturday morning.

You can't beat the price, though. And the ride relaxes him, keeping his mind off his worries about his wife's chemotherapy treatment, D'Amato said during a six-hour layover in Raleigh.

The Federal Railroad Administration will start handing out the money this winter, Kulat said. It had planned to announce grants in the fall but was delayed, he says, by a decision to wait for all applications to see how they fit together.

All indications point to late January or February for the first round of grants, says Yoav Hagler, an associate planner for America 2050.

Unprecedented spending

Whichever regions win it, all are hoping the money is just the first the federal government makes available for high-speed rail.

Proposals in Congress offer the prospects of billions more. The Senate voted in September to hand out $1.2 billion annually for five years after the House approved $4 billion. Committees are working to reconcile the amounts.

Hagler, who has studied potential rail links across the country, said California, the Midwest and the Northeast should split the first round of money. He co-authored a report for America 2050, a project of a regional planning association in the New York area, saying the greatest demand for rail would be served by linking San Francisco to Los Angeles, Washington to Boston, and Chicago to Minneapolis, Detroit and St. Louis.

“These are the places that have the population, the economies and the existing travel markets to really support these systems,” Hagler said.

He said the Federal Railroad Administration will favor projects that have studied the environmental effects of their proposals, giving an edge to California.

The Northeast could be hindered in winning money for improvements by a lack of environmental study, Hagler says.

More progress has been made on a study for the proposal submitted by North Carolina and Virginia, he said.

Speeding up NC trips

That could help persuade the federal government to help speed up trips from Charlotte to Richmond, Va.

Under North Carolina's and Virginia's plans, trains would average 86 mph and reach top speeds of 110 mph, said Patrick Simmons, North Carolina's rail division director.

Today, trains chug through North Carolina at 54 mph.

As part of the project, track from Charlotte to Greensboro to Raleigh to Washington would be upgraded.

Simmons said the work would go through 2017 and create roughly 60,000 jobs in the two states.

While acknowledging North Carolina is unlikely to get the full $5.3 billion it has requested, Simmons said the state has a good shot at winning some funding because it has invested so much in its railroads and planned so much for improving them.

“We've been progressing down a pathway that would lead us to this day,” he said.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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