Obama to distribute billions for high-speed rail lines

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's State of the Union shout-out for high-speed rail will pump more than $8 billion into dozens of states that include California, Washington, North Carolina and Florida.

Smaller awards also will be made for improvements to existing rail lines. Overall, 31 states will receive funding.

California is one of the big winners, receiving $2.25 billion to help build a high-speed rail system, as well as additional money for other rail projects.

The grants include $1.1 billion for a Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor, $1.25 billion for a Tampa-to-Orlando, Fla., corridor, $244 million for a Chicago-to-Detroit corridor and $810 million for work between Madison, Wis., and Milwaukee. In Ohio, $400 million will pay for work between Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Washington and North Carolina are getting roughly half a billion dollars each, and Florida will hear its good news directly from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday.

"When the president and vice president show up to make a joint funding announcement, it's a significant announcement," Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

Castor, who'll be flying to Florida with Obama on Air Force One, said White House senior political adviser David Axelrod had advised her that the president's appearance at the University of Tampa would include the delivery of high-speed rail money.

All told, 13 major corridors will receive awards Thursday to help develop new high-speed rail infrastructure or to begin a transition to high-speed rail.

North Carolina, for instance, is receiving $520 million for the Raleigh-to-Charlotte corridor. This will be used for track improvements so that trains can travel at up to 90 mph. The money also will pay for station improvements.

Washington state is receiving $590 million to help eliminate bottlenecks in a corridor that connects Portland, Ore., with Seattle. Because of concerns over safety and freight traffic, the trains currently are limited to 79 mph.

"Anybody who travels the I-5 corridor in our state knows that we need to find new, efficient options to get commuters and commerce moving," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "This funding is the opportunity we've been waiting for to help make these improvements a reality."

Murray, the chairman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, learned of the funding Wednesday in a phone call from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

California has studied high-speed rail service along four corridors: Los Angeles to Anaheim, Fresno to Bakersfield, Fresno to Merced and San Francisco to San Jose. In addition to the $2.25 billion, the state will receive $99 million for smaller corridors served by conventional trains.

The White House announcement didn't specify where the money must be spent among the California corridors, nor was it immediately apparent how that decision will be made.

"California is far ahead of any other rail corridor in the country," said Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of California, a high-speed rail advocate who spoke to LaHood on Wednesday.

Transportation Department officials were scrambling to organize a California news conference, Costa said.

California had sought roughly $4.7 billion — more than half the amount available nationwide — to help connect Los Angeles and San Francisco with 220 mph trains. State officials never expected to get the full amount.

"Any amount of funding that we get from the stimulus act is a benefit to California and its high-speed rail system," said Jeff Barker, a spokesman for the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

All told, 24 states submitted 45 corridor applications for high-speed rail funding, which was included as part of a $787 billion economic stimulus package that was approved last February.

Transportation Department officials have said that the funding decisions will be "merit-based." Even so, lawmakers have been pressing hard for their preferred routes.

(Les Blumenthal and Barbara Barrett in Washington and E.J. Schultz of The Fresno Bee contributed to this article.)

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