Monday, November 02, 2009

Conn. officials wonder if upgrading rail line will be worthwhile

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When federal officials evaluate the idea of upgrading the New Haven-to-Springfield, Conn., rail line to accommodate high-speed trains, they'll have two core questions: Is the project worthwhile, and can it deliver results quickly?

 At a weekend conference about the future of America's rail systems, several experts said the New Haven-to-Springfield plan-along with dozens of others throughout the country-will have to meet two essential standards to stand a chance of getting federal funding, The Hartford Courant reports.

Proponents must show how it will significantly improve transportation, but also demonstrate that it will actually work soon.

 Connecticut is among 34 states trying to get a piece of the $8 billion in high-speed rail funding that President Barack Obama's administration plans to award this winter. Federal transportation officials are reviewing thousands of pages of applications before selecting winners, and won't discuss the chances for any specific project or region. But since Obama announced the initiative in April, talk has become steadily more open about a political reality: His administration needs some quick successes from whichever ones are chosen.

"This first round [of funding] is important. We cannot fail in any way, shape or form, or there's no future for this program," Karen Rae, a senior federal railway administrator, said at the annual Rail-Volution conference in Boston. "How well we spend that $8 billion will determine the future funding for high-speed rail."



Connecticut has applied for about $80 million to double-track a section of the 60-mile route from Springfield to New Haven, a tiny start to a project that would eventually require the state, Massachusetts, Amtrak and the federal government to jointly come up with $1 billion or more to electrify the line, install modern signals, redesign grade crossings, rebuild bridges and double-track the entire corridor.



With dozens of states putting forward even more elaborate and costly projects, the competition is stiff - and nobody expects the initial $8 billion to go very far. But states are trying to get even a small piece of that funding, hoping that the Federal Railroad Administration will give them priority when it doles out later rounds of cash.



U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is pushing for legislation next year that would overhaul the national transportation funding system, largely pulling back from new highway construction while pumping hundreds of billions into better maintenance of existing highways along with new public transit projects. Included would be $50 billion for high-speed rail systems.



When Oberstar was in Connecticut earlier this year, he recommended an aggressive plan to revitalize the region's economy by linking Montreal, Boston, Hartford, Albany and Manhattan through a network of high-speed rail routes.

 But while a coalition of Midwest states has put together that type of plan centered on Chicago, the governors and transportation chiefs of the New England states haven't.

New Hampshire, a part of the Boston-to-Montreal route, recently announced that it wouldn't pursue high-speed rail funding because of a dispute with Pan Am Railways, which owns a key stretch of track.

And Connecticut transportation advocates privately acknowledge frustration that Massachusetts isn't working harder to develop a Springfield-to- Boston segment. Without that, New Haven-to-Springfield is little more than a branch of Amtrak's Acela service. Combine it with a high-speed Springfield-to-Boston link, though, and it becomes a valuable, high-use connector for New York to Boston service.



Even with delays and setbacks, though, projects like New Haven-to-Springfield will have a chance at eventually getting built if Oberstar's legislation passes, rail proponents said. One prominent rail advocate who asked not to be named said that Oberstar's funding plan is ultimately far more important than how the $8 billion in seed money is split up.



"Oberstar's proposal is truly transformational," he said. "But if it doesn't get through, this whole conference has just been people talking. Nothing more."

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