By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; B05
President Obama doled out $8 billion in federal stimulus money Thursday to build and improve rail lines in 31 states, helping fund high-speed service between Richmond and Washington and replacement of a 19th-century tunnel through Baltimore.
The almost $140 million for the regional projects was a pittance in contrast to the big-ticket items funded elsewhere. California will receive $2.3 billion and Florida $1.3 billion to build high-speed rail lines linking San Francisco and San Diego, and Orlando and Tampa.
"There is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can't," Obama said Thursday in Tampa, chosen as the backdrop to announce the winners among 45 applicants whose requests totaled $50 billion.
Obama promised his Tampa audience that once the line to Disney World is completed, he will return to ride it. In the meantime, he said, the rail projects will put Americans to work.
"It creates jobs immediately, and it lays the foundation for a vibrant economy in the future," Obama said.
Advocates of rail travel and transport relished the moment.
"This is the biggest single investment in intercity rail service in our lifetime," said John Horsley of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "The closest thing to it has been development of the interstate highway system."
Ever since Obama included the $8 billion last year in the stimulus package, rail advocates have debated whether the money should be used on one or two new projects that are truly meant to deliver "high-speed" rail, akin to European or Asian trains, or spread around to upgrade existing rail links, helping them operate at higher speeds, if not "high speed."
On Thursday, advocates said the administration had opted for a mix of rail projects, with money going to the California and Florida projects -- true high-speed lines to which those states have dedicated millions of their own money -- as well as toward upgrading conventional rail lines elsewhere in the country.
"It would take a lot more than $8 billion to build a major American system, whether it's high speed or higher speed, so they tried to look at a combination of things," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "What it's about is not whether something is capable of going 200 miles per hour, it's can you improve the average speed and the quality of service. . . . It looks to me that they hit a pretty good balance."
The $75 million awarded to Virginia helps fund an estimated $1.3 billion project intended to more than double the rate at which passenger trains travel between Richmond and Washington, allowing them to reach speeds in excess of 90 mph. The federal money is earmarked to add a third track along a key 11-mile stretch between Stafford and Prince William counties, where bottlenecks occur when passenger and freight trains share the rails, said Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
"We are pleased to be a part of the federal program, and we are ready to work with the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] to build a sustainable federal rail program," Pickett said.
The high-speed service might also feed into Virginia Railway Express, which has service between Fredericksburg and Washington.
Maryland will receive $60 million to lay the groundwork for replacement of a tunnel built just west of Baltimore's Penn Station in the 1870s.
The tunnel, which will cost $1 billion to replace, is used by Amtrak, MARC and the Norfolk Southern freight line. The state was also awarded $9.4 million to begin planning an $80 million to $100 million project to improve the station that serves MARC and Amtrak near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
"Both [projects] will increase our ability to move people more efficiently by rail and reduce our dependence on the automobile," said Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). "This funding allows us to complete the engineering and environmental work necessary to get these vital projects ready for construction."
Staff writers Jennifer Buske and Alec MacGillis contributed to this report.