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Feds redistribute $2 billion for rail projects

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The Obama administration on Monday announced the reallocation of $2 billion in its signature transportation program to create a national high-speed rail network, including $795 million for upgrades that would permit speeds of 160 mph in parts of the Northeast Corridor.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the money available to other states this year when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) opted not to accept funds that had been allocated to build high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.

LaHood said almost 100 applications came in from 24 states, the District and Amtrak.

Maryland received $22 million to help replace a 100-year-old bridge over the Susquehanna River on the Northeast Corridor line. The District did not receive any funds in this round, and Virginia did not apply.

“If you’re ready to get into the high-speed rail business, we’re ready to help you,” said LaHood, who shuttled Monday between New York and Detroit to announce the funding. He said the awards went to “reliable partners” in the high-speed rail effort.

Scott and two other Republican governors elected last year — John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — rejected high-speed rail money, saying they feared their states would be saddled with any cost overruns.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House transportation committee, has been outspoken in his opposition to the administration’s plan to spend $50 billion more for high-speed rail over the next five years.

Mica, who favors a privately funded rail system, was critical Monday of funding for several projects that would benefit Amtrak’s operations in the Northeast Corridor.

“We need a comprehensive, responsible plan for the Northeast Corridor,” he said in a statement, “and Amtrak — our nation’s Soviet-style passenger rail service — is incapable of carrying out a project of this scope and significance.”

The administration contends its push for a high-speed rail system is a competitive imperative as Europe and China embrace such trains. But the White House’s enthusiasm has been tempered slightly by the austerity movement on Capitol Hill.

For example, the $2.4 billion that Florida rejected was reduced to $2 billion as the administration negotiated a compromise spending plan for fiscal 2011.

“We gave at the office,” LaHood said of that deal. “You didn’t hear any whining or complaining.”

While the administration once sought to spend $53 billion — on top of an earlier $10.5 billion allocation — over the next five years, LaHood said Monday that the 2012 budget proposal reflects a $50 billion commitment for that same period.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association has estimated the price tag at $600 billion over the next 20 years, a cost that critics say the nation cannot afford. High-speed advocates envision a network of 17,000 miles of rail capable of handling trains traveling at 220 mph.

High-speed rail is a popular mode of transportation in Europe, Japan and China, but it requires large expenditures for infrastructure and trains.

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, welcomed LaHood’s announcement Monday as “an important step toward bringing America’s transportation system into the 21st century.”

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