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Pennsylvania unable to match share for high-speed rail funds

(The following story by Matthew Santoni appeared on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review website on June 30, 2010.)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Federal officials are making available $2.3 billion for high-speed rail projects, but officials said Pennsylvania might not be able to afford to chip in its share.

The money granted from the 2010 transportation bill is meant to pay for new tracks, signal upgrades or other improvements to passenger rail service, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Rob Kulat. For a project to be eligible, the state, county, municipality or another group must cover at least 20 percent of the cost.

"We're reviewing any options we have, but it's going to be very difficult to come up with our 20 percent match," said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters.

The Federal Highway Administration rejected Pennsylvania's proposal to charge tolls on Interstate 80, and the state has struggled with a $472 million transportation funding shortfall for next year. It's hard to come up with millions for high-speed rail projects when the state must maintain roads, bridges and transit systems, Waters said.

Legislators aren't optimistic, either.

"We're having a hard time coming up with any funding right now for transportation," said state Rep. Joe Markosek, a Monroeville Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "High-speed rail is a high priority, but so are our roads and bridges."

When the government gave out $8 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects in January, most of the $26.4 million that PennDOT received was designated for improvements to the Harrisburg-to-Philadelphia rail corridor. Officials set aside $750,000 to study how to speed up service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. The state hasn't yet received the money.

Fred Gurney, president of McKeesport-based Maglev Inc., said his company could seek funding for a $5.25 billion train proposed to run from Pittsburgh International Airport to Downtown, Monroeville and Greensburg. The train would travel more than 200 mph, using powerful magnets to hover above an elevated track. After spending nearly $23 million over the past decade, the maglev's final environmental-impact statement recently was approved and opened to public comment.

"That makes us the only maglev project in the country with an approved final EIS (environmental-impact statement)," Gurney said. "And there aren't many wheels-on-steel rail projects that have an approved final EIS, either."

The deadline for applications is Aug. 6, and grant recipients are expected to be announced by the end of September.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

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