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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

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

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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