» For the first time, the Department of Transportation makes a major effort to use high-speed rail grants to invest in the Northeast Corridor.
After months of complaints that the U.S. DOT was not focused enough on the needs of its densest and most productive metropolitan area, the agency has agreed to appropriate almost $800 million to the Northeast Corridor — enough to begin work on upgrades to the main line between New York and Philadelphia.
Also winning major new grants for rail upgrades are Michigan, Illinois, and New York State. California will receive another $300 million to pursue construction on the Central Valley segment of its planned new San Francisco-to-Los Angeles main line.
This is the third major release of rail funds from the federal government after similar announcements in January, October, and December 2010.
The $2 billion in projects funded today are taking advantage of the decision in February by Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) to abandon his state’s efforts to construct a new rail line between Tampa and Orlando, despite the fact that the line’s construction would have been almost fully paid for by the federal government. Numerous studies projected it to be operationally profitable. The governors of the states that received awards today are unanimously supportive of intercity rail projects in their respective states, so they are unlikely to turn back the funds.
These grants are the last of their kind: The election of a Republican majority to the U.S. House of Representatives has put a block in the Obama Administration’s efforts to continue funding for rail projects. Indeed, the April budget agreement eliminated such grants entirely for Fiscal Year 2011. Unless there is a significant change of heart among conservative members of the national legislature, there is unlikely to be much more money at least until after the 2012 elections.
Nonetheless, the commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Northeast is likely to be well-received politically. After all, at the root of much of the criticism of the Administration’s rail grants has been its focus on places like California and Florida, which have been (inappropriately) construed as the “wrong places” for initial investments. At least so far, few have objected to the notion that the Boston-Washington corridor deserves — and needs — better rail service.
Specified for funding are $450 million in improvements on a 24-mile section of track from New York and Philadelphia (between New Brunswick and Morrisville) that will allow 160 mph service there and $295 million for a bypass around the Harold Interlocking in Queens, now a major impediment to the smooth-running of trains into and out of Manhattan. Three projects worth a total of $50 million in Maryland and Rhode Island will also attempt to increase capacity marginally on the corridor.
What remains far off is Amtrak’s $117 billion vision for a brand-new high-speed rail line connecting the Northeast’s biggest cities. Though the national rail agency asked for funds to begin studying a new trans-Hudson tunnel between New York and New Jersey called the Gateway project, it came away empty-handed this time around as the government has made the right-headed decision that with limited funds only much-needed upgrades to the existing line should be pursued.
The complete renewal of the Northeast Corridor will probably have to wait until something akin to President Obama’s $53 billion intercity rail plan is agreed to by the Congress, unlikely in these deficit-obsessed times.
Fortunately for the rest of the country, the new focus on the Northeast has not prevented the government from awarding grants to other states including California, which now has enough money to complete a 133-mile segment of the first phase of its statewide system. Tracks are now funded for the entire corridor from Bakersfield north of Fresno to the wye where trains will eventually head off either north to Sacramento or northwest to San Francisco. With $10 billion in state funds and $4 billion in federal funds now committed to this program, this project is well on its way to getting off the ground.
Also moving forward are upgrade projects in Illinois, Michigan, and New York State, where Amtrak services will be significantly improved to allow for faster travel times. On top of the previously awarded funds, Michigan will be able to offer 110 mph service on the 135-mile track segment between Kalamazoo and Dearborn by 2013, saving passengers up to 50 minutes between Detroit and Chicago. The funds for Illinois will continue to improve service on the route between Chicago and St. Louis. And New York will be able to relieve the bottleneck that occurs at the Albany-Rensselaer Station with $58 million in grants.
California and the Midwest will receive $68 million and $268.2 million, respectively, for the purchase of new trainsets to be used on existing Amtrak routes. A similar $100 million grant was provided to the Golden State two weeks ago for new train cars and locomotives.
Double tracking of existing lines and minor improvements in capacity will be funded in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Texas has been awarded $15 million to pursue studies on a future true high-speed rail corridor between Dallas and Houston.
|DOT Announces Third Round of High-Speed Rail Grants|