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Pa. left at the station for high-speed funds

(The following story by Paul Nussbaum appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on January 29, 2010.)

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — President Obama yesterday revealed his plans to spend $8 billion on high-speed rail projects heralded as the start of a new era in American transportation, but Pennsylvania's share will be only a tiny fraction of that amount.

Pennsylvania's $25.6 million - or 0.3 percent of the total - will go to improving the Philadelphia-Harrisburg "Keystone Corridor," which carries 14 Amtrak round trips a day, and $750,000 to studying expansion of passenger service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, where one Amtrak train operates daily in each direction.

The money did not include funding that SEPTA and Amtrak had hoped for - for track, signal, and power improvements and the addition of a third express track between Atglen and Paoli in Chester County - that would allow trains in the Keystone Corridor to reach 125 m.p.h., up from 110.

Thirteen rail corridors in 31 states received federal stimulus grants for high-speed rail. The only funding for New Jersey will go toward replacing the Northeast Corridor's Portal Bridge between Kearny and Secaucus.

The big winners were California and Florida.

California is to get $2.3 billion for a high-speed line that eventually could carry trains at more than 200 m.p.h. between the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles and San Diego.

Florida will receive $1.25 billion to build a line connecting Tampa on the west coast with Orlando in the middle of the state, with plans to extend the line to Miami.

Obama's home state of Illinois will get $1.1 billion to improve the line from Chicago to St. Louis to permit speeds up to 110 m.p.h.

By spreading the $8 billion among so many states, Obama ignored the advice of transportation experts who advocated concentrating on two or three grants large enough to get a high-speed line up and running.

Speaking yesterday at 30th Street Station, Federal Transit Administrator Joseph Szabo said spreading the wealth allowed the creation of more jobs in more places.

"It doesn't do much good for jobs to award $8 billion to one place if they couldn't spend it for two or three or four years," Szabo said.

Gov. Rendell applauded the awards as a way to increase ridership, improve competitiveness and create jobs in Pennsylvania. And he said it made sense to give the biggest grants elsewhere.

"From a national perspective, it is highly appropriate to make the largest investments in the two marquee projects in California and Florida while continuing to move other shovel-ready projects forward," he said in a statement.

Szabo said other regions got more money than Pennsylvania because the state already has a fairly robust rail network and because the administration wanted to provide "some regional equity."

Thirty-eight states had submitted proposals totaling $57 billion. Obama and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced the awards yesterday in Tampa, and other administration officials fanned out across the country to tout the program.

At 30th Street Station, Szabo and Amtrak president Joseph Boardman, joined by regional officials, compared the investment in high-speed rail to the beginning of the interstate-highway network in the 1950s.

In Pennsylvania, the funding will pay for the removal of the last three highway grade crossings on the Philadelphia-Harrisburg line, in Lancaster County. Preliminary engineering work will be done on several major rail intersections on the line, and preparations will be made for installing improved signal and control equipment.

The work will be completed within two years, state Deputy Transportation Secretary Toby Fauver said. It will pave the way for further improvements that will allow trains to reach 125 m.p.h. and reduce the 105-mile trip from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to 1 hour, 15 minutes, about 15 minutes faster than now.

The federal money for the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh study will be matched by $750,000 in state funding, Fauver said.

John Dawson of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers lauded the investment in high-speed rail, but said the United States lagged far behind Europe and Asia.

"Eight billion dollars spread all over the country doesn't go very far," Dawson said.

U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, the senior Republican on the House Transportation Committee, complained that the Midwest lines awarded grants would achieve speeds of only 110 m.p.h. and had been "selected more for political reasons than for high-speed service."

And he said the Northeast Corridor, the most heavily traveled rail section of the country, had gotten too little.

"It is a shame that the people in that crowded corridor have been shortchanged in this high-speed rail system selection process," Mica said.

The other grants announced yesterday included:

$810 million in Wisconsin to upgrade and refurbish train stations and install safety equipment on the Madison-to-Milwaukee leg of a line that stretches from Minneapolis to Chicago.

$590 million to upgrade a rail line from Seattle to Portland, Ore.

$520 million for projects in North Carolina that will increase top speeds to 90 m.p.h. on trains between Raleigh and Charlotte and double the number of round trips.

Friday, January 29, 2010

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