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Transportation head praises Connecticut for rail project

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Susan Haigh on April 26, 2010.)

HARTFORD, Conn. — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood encouraged Connecticut officials on Monday to work with Massachusetts and the federal government to introduce high-speed commuter rail service to the region, saying it will likely be one of the first completed projects in the nation.

LaHood, appearing at the state Capitol with state and federal officials, said the planned service linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield, Mass., gels with President Barack Obama's vision to connect America with inner-city high-speed passenger rail and spur economic development.

"Connecticut has its act together and Connecticut will be connected with inner-city high-speed passenger rail because of the cooperation between the state government, the federal government and the opportunities that are created for the money that may be available in the future," he said.

The federal government has already awarded $40 million to Connecticut for the project, money that's being used to help construct a second set of tracks in stretches where there's only a single track.

Connecticut Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie said the state is putting together its application for a second round of funding. He said the request would be more than $40 million. Connecticut must match 20 percent of the federal funding.

Advocates hope the high-speed rail corridor will be running by 2014 or 2016, so long as the state submits various studies to federal officials necessary to receive additional funding.

"All of us have the same goal, the same desire, and that is to have high-speed — real high-speed rail service — in the corridor, in the heart of New England," said Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell. "If we can meet a timetable and be as aggressive as we have planned, then I think we will be the first in the nation to accomplish that."

In October, Massachusetts received $70 million in federal rail stimulus funding to rebuild the rail line to Vermont. Timothy W. Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield, said that will help speed up trips on Amtrak, which has been forced to take a circuitous route because of the poor condition of the tracks.

He said there's a chance that commuter rail might someday be continued past Springfield, to places like Holyoke and Northhampton. But the next step is to conduct an east-west rail passenger feasibility study, linking western Massachusetts to Boston.

Regular commuter rail service on the 64-mile corridor linking New Haven, Hartford and Springfield ended about 40 years ago with the demise of the former New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. Amtrak has owned and controlled the train tracks since 1971. Reviving commuter service has been hampered over the years because of the single-track stretches.

"This has been a dream for a long time and now the aspiration is right in front of us," said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.

Thousands of people commute between Massachusetts and Connecticut daily. Brennan said more people move north to south, many driving by car to New Haven to catch trains that travel to New York or Washington.

On Monday morning, LaHood rode with Connecticut officials on the Amtrak line from New Haven to Hartford. U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said it was a chance to see the opportunities for the commuter line, passing by possible stops in places like Wallingford and Meriden. Eight to 11 stops are under consideration for the corridor.

But Dodd said the idea of high-speed rail extends far beyond such stops.

"It's not just connecting two cities or three cities," he said. "This is the portal to New England and transit systems, not just for Connecticut and Massachusetts, but on through Vermont, connecting Boston to New York, on down to Washington," Dodd said. "It is absolutely essential. You couldn't do the others and leave this out."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

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