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Connecticut leaders put positive spin on $40 million rail grant

(The following story by Don Stacom appeared on The Hartford Courant website on January 28, 2010.)

HARTFORD — Even though the Northeast came out as the big loser in the competition for $8 billion in federal high-speed train grants Thursday, state officials said they are satisfied that Connecticut fared reasonably well.

The proposed Springfield-to- New Haven line, a project that U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd has said could power an economic recovery for Connecticut, won initial funding of $40 million.

"It's the first time we're getting funding for this line from the federal government, so that's good," House Speaker Christopher Donovan said Thursday.

"This is great news for one of the most important and ambitious public transportation projects we have undertaken in years," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said.

But Connecticut political leaders also acknowledged that $40 million is far short of what's needed. Transportation officials estimate that it would take $800 million to $1 billion to improve that line so it could accommodate 110 mph Amtrak trains. From New Haven, trains would continue on to Boston, New York or Washington, D.C. Perhaps more important, the same tracks could carry a new north-south commuter rail system with service almost as frequent as Metro-North's shoreline route.

"A viable commuter rail system through the center of our state and region is not only important for commuters, but for the opportunities it brings to the communities up and down the line," Rell said.

The $40 million is a "down payment," and the state would have to contribute more of its own money and seek future federal funding to fully build the system, Dodd said.

Overall, the Northeast finished at the back of the pack in the race for economic stimulus grants for high-speed trains.

Despite having many of the nation's most congested highways and its busiest Amtrak line, the Northeast got less than $500 million, and none of its major proposals won substantial funding. The ambitious plan to link Boston, New York and Montreal by a system of 110-mph trains — an idea trumpeted by Connecticut's congressional delegation as key to regional economic recovery — made almost no progress.

By comparison, three mega-projects — one each in Florida, California and Illinois — soaked up more than $4.5 billion. And North Carolina snagged more money than all the Northeastern states combined.

U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, acknowledged that Connecticut could have done better, and issued a statement saying, "The state needs to be better coordinated and prepared to take advantage of future opportunities."

Some rail advocates took an optimistic view.

"It's essential that we view these investments as a beginning, and not an end point," said Tom Irwin, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, part of the New England Rail Coalition. "To build the sort of rail network we need, both as a region and as a nation, it will be essential for the federal government to continue aggressive funding of the system and to provide a stable and dependable funding source."

When President Barack Obama announced the campaign last May to begin building a high-speed rail system linking major cities around the nation, more than 40 states raced to grab shares of the $8 billion in seed money. Connecticut political leaders declared that the state's chances were good because New Haven-to-Springfield would become a link in a high-speed route from Boston and New York.

But Massachusetts didn't apply for the money it needs to upgrade the tracks between Springfield and Boston.

The $8 billion awarded Thursday wasn't enough to build even one high-speed rail route completely, and Obama has promised $1 billion a year over the next five years to keep work progressing. Transit advocates in Congress want to increase that amount to $4 billion a year or more, and Connecticut officials hope to snare some of that money.

Anne Stubbs, executive director of transportation with the Coalition of Northeastern Governors, insisted that the Northeast fared well overall because it had already landed hundreds of millions of dollars for improvements along Amtrak's routes.

"I don't think anything went wrong. We think this is a positive first step," Stubbs said.

Friday, January 29, 2010

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