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High-speed rail grant requests flood DOT

(The following story by John D. Boyd appeared on The Journal of Commerce website on August 17, 2010.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a followup to the Department of Transportation’s earlier allocation of $8 billion in stimulus grants for faster and expanded inter-city passenger rail service, the DOT said it has taken 77 aid requests from 25 states for a separate 2010 grant fund of $2.3 billion.

But the DOT said the latest round of inter-city passenger rail grant project applications asks for more than $8.5 billion in federal funds, nearly four times the actual amounts to be awarded this year. Recipients will be announced sometime this fall.

Although the DOT bills these as “high-speed rail” grants, most of the money is going into routes used by regular Amtrak trains, either to expand their range to new city pairs or to beef up average speeds, by making upgrades to tracks and signaling in the freight railroad-owned corridors where Amtrak runs.

Of the first-round $8 billion, for instance, the DOT is direction $4.5 billion to so-called “higher-speed” Amtrak or other passenger service moving between cities, with the goal of making train service more appealing to potential riders by improving speeds and schedule reliability. The other $3.5 billion was for two projects that could create true high-speed routes for special trains running 150 mph or faster, in dedicated corridors away from freight lines.

The upgrades for Amtrak routes also benefit freight operations, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has previously emphasized that the projects will help host railroads haul more freight that might otherwise move by road. But executives of those host freight lines are also leery of getting stuck with on-time performance standards for passenger services that rent the use of their tracks.

The DOT says development of a strong passenger rail system can ease highway congestion and maintenance pressures, reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil for motor fuels and help curb fuel emissions including carbon. The demand for the 2010 rail grants “underscores public support for new transportation options,” the department said.

In all, the DOT has $2.345 billion to award this year “to help states further develop their corridor plans.” Of that, $245 million is for projects that are ready to begin construction.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which administers the program, said 20 of the applications for $7.8 billion came from 10 states trying to develop their inter-city rail corridors. The FRA took 57 requests from 18 states, totaling $700 million, for smaller projects within rail corridors that are ready to start work.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

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