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High-speed rail plans for New York take shape

(The following story by Steve Orr appeared on the Democrat and Chronicle website on February 23, 2010.)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Having been largely shut out of federal high-speed rail funding, state transportation officials are turning their attention to a handful of rail projects that did win federal support — including the first tangible piece of the long-sought high-speed passenger rail corridor across upstate New York.

It matters not that the new high-speed line will reach a mere 11 miles from the Monroe County town of Riga to the middle of Byron, Genesee County, state officials say.

“We’re going to be taking these incremental steps … until we cover the entire corridor from end to end. This seemed to be a good first step in the process,” said Ann Purdue, the Department of Transportation’s high-speed intercity passenger rail manager.

Design work should begin shortly on the $58 million test track, on which Amtrak passengers will be able to experience speeds up to 110 mph — for a few moments, anyway.

Construction could start as soon as this fall. Funding comes from a $151 million federal stimulus grant for rail projects that New York was awarded last month.

Sizable though the $151 million award may seem, it represented only 3 percent of the sum that New York had sought from Washington — and the state’s failure to win a larger share of the $8 billion made available by the Obama administration for high-speed rail dealt a blow to New York’s rail program. Some federal officials, as well as supporters in Congress, said after the fact that New York’s applications were not up to snuff.

Building a new case

State officials now must start almost from scratch to build a new case for federal rail aid to upgrade the 330-mile corridor between Albany and Niagara Falls. Purdue said the best thing New York can do is to use the resources it has wisely.

“Once we get more credibility, when they see that we are doing something meaningful, it will be easier to get money,” she said.

Most of New York’s $151 million will be devoted to two construction projects, including adding a new track for Amtrak trains between Albany and Schenectady, an infamous bottleneck.

The other project starts at Attridge Road in Riga and runs to a spot near Beaver Meadow Road in south-central Byron. Along this 11-mile stretch, the state intends to build an entirely new track for the exclusive use of Amtrak trains, parallel to a pair of existing CSX Transportation tracks now shared by passenger trains and slower freights.

Eventually, this third track is meant to extend across the state to Albany.

The western New York location was chosen, Purdue said, because it is relatively flat and straight and thus fairly easy to build. Construction will take place on CSX’s existing right-of-way, and neither land acquisition nor an environmental impact statement is needed.

The state does not yet have an agreement with Florida-based CSX for use of its right-of-way, Purdue said, and it wasn’t clear whether the state would have to pay the railroad for use of its land.

She was confident an agreement will be reached before Sept. 30, the deadline for working out all details and signing the final federal grant papers. Construction must be finished within two years of that date.

CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan, noting the railroad must maintain service to more than 1,000 upstate freight customers as it helps improve passenger rail, said discussions with the state are under way but it would be “premature to talk about what that agreement might say.”

As Purdue noted, though, the railroad suggested the 11-mile stretch in the first place as the best location to begin building the high-speed corridor.

The project will be a template for the longer corridor, providing lessons in matters such as smoothing out curves and building gradual connections from old tracks to new so that trains can maintain higher speeds.

Because Amtrak’s diesel-powered locomotives accelerate relatively slowly, the trains would be able to travel at 110 mph for fewer than five minutes before having to slow down again. That would shave only a couple of minutes off the Rochester-to-Buffalo travel time, which typically is about 70 minutes.

Current traffic levels

About 85 trains a day now use the CSX tracks between the two cities, according to available federal data. Eight are Amtrak passenger trains.

There are 10 public road crossings along the 11-mile stretch, including two in the village of Churchville and one in the village of Bergen. All are now protected by gates, flashing lights and signs.

Grade separation at crossings — bridges or tunnels to keep cars and trains from intersecting — isn’t required unless trains exceed 125 mph.

Purdue said she was not sure to what extent crossing protection would be upgraded.

The busiest of those crossings, South Main Street in Churchville, handles about 5,300 cars a day, federal data show.

That village’s 2,000 or so residents co-exist well with the trains, said Mayor Nancy Steedman.

“We’ve grown up with them here. They’re not a problem,” she said.

But she has heard nothing from the state or CSX about the high-speed track, and couldn’t comment on the prospect of trains racing through the village at 110 mph.

State DOT spokeswoman Jennifer Post said the agency was planning “public outreach” about the project.

More information, and more planning, is on the state Transportation Department’s agenda, too.

After states such as California and Florida were awarded far more federal rail money than New York, various officials opined that New York’s applications had been inadequate and their planning insufficient.

Purdue begged to differ. New York submitted applications for 39 separate projects; only seven were funded, but 38 of the applications were deemed complete. The one application ruled incomplete was the big one — the request for $4.7 billion to build out the entire high-speed corridor.

Future largess needed

Saying it had been years since New York invested significantly in its rail system, Purdue acknowledged that the state had no track record to impress federal officials. And she said that New York didn’t have an environmental impact statement and other planning documents needed to win the big grant it sought.

With the $151 million it did get, the state can start building that track record, she said. New York also will spend more than $2 million to conduct an in-depth corridor study to satisfy federal officials down the road. That effort likely won’t be done until after the deadline later this year for an additional $2.5 billion in federal aid.

Hopes for high-speed rail funding are pinned on future largess from Washington.

“It’s going to take us a few years to build it, and it’s going to be dependent on federal funding,” Purdue said.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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