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Rail stimulus funds to bypass Northeast

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The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington - the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America's only high-speed train, the Acela - have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration, according to the Boston Globe. Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.

The projects, aimed at
increasing speeds, range from bridge replacements in Connecticut to new overhead
wires in New Jersey. They would cut the Acela’s travel time from Boston to New
York by almost 30 minutes, and from Boston to Washington by a full hour.

When the first grants are
announced in January, most of the money – and accompanying jobs – is expected
to go to railroad projects in California and the Midwest, which currently have
no high-speed trains but are trying to establish service for the first time.

"It’s frustrating,” said
Yoav Hagler, a planner at the Regional Plan Association in New York, a
nonprofit regional planning group in New York. "We have a thriving intercity
passenger market between our major cities and we need major investment in the
corridor, so it’s a little strange to put that need in the same category as
these new programs that are just applying and trying to build a market now."

Northeastern states are
seeking some stimulus money for separate rail projects within their borders,
such as the Massachusetts proposal to add commuter rail from Fall River and New
Bedford to Boston. But travelers on the Acela will miss out on the promise of a
faster train and will have to continue waiting for the day when the Northeast
route matches the performance of European and Japanese lines.

The obstacle was a decision
this year by the Federal Railroad Administration that, before any major
upgrades could proceed, a comprehensive environmental review would have to be
conducted on the entire 457-mile railroad. Longstanding rules require such
environmental studies – even if the heavily traveled corridor already carries
high-speed trains, said Mark Yachmetz, associate administrator for railroad
development at the FRA. Upgrading the Acela route to reduce travel times would
take the program to "the next level, beyond what they have been planning for up
to now,” and requiring more study, he said.

The FRA itself would be in
charge of conducting the review. Although there is no timetable for completing
it, similar studies in the past have taken years.

Senator John F. Kerry,
Democrat of Massachusetts, and a major backer of high-speed rail, said in a written
statement that in future rounds of funding he would work to "ensure that any
procedural obstacles are either removed or overcome to provide for an outcome
where the corridor gets all the resources it needs.”

"Ensuring that the
Northeast Corridor can access federal funding available to other regions is
critical to moving us towards a rail system that is up to par with the
high-tech rail systems across the globe,” he said.

Amtrak has identified $11.8
billion in upgrades to reduce travel times on the corridor. In addition to
better overhead electric supplies and stronger bridges, it includes
straightening sections of curvy track and upgrading signaling systems. Without
the review mandated by FRA, those plans will sit on the shelf for now, although
states were able to apply for a few smaller grants under a separate part of the
high-speed program.

The Obama administration,
which has embraced high-speed rail as a flagship effort in the stimulus and
boasts of Vice President Joe Biden’s long history as an Amtrak commuter, has
framed the $8 billion as only the first step in the creation of a nationwide
network.

Congress voted recently to
provide another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail next year, meaning states that
miss out in January will have at least one more chance to apply. But it may be
difficult to complete a full environmental review of the Northeast railroad
corridor in time for that money, either. A spokesman for Amtrak, Cliff Black,
said the last such review for the Corridor took about three years in the
mid-1990s, and covered only the stretch between New Haven and Boston.

Kevin Brubaker, deputy
director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, said state
governments nationwide were surprised by the requirements, but that some were
able to quickly complete reviews – a practical impossibility for the Northeast
region. Its railroad corridor passes through eight states plus the District of
Columbia and shares the tracks with seven commuter rail agencies, including the
MBTA.

"People were caught short
by the environmental requirements that FRA imposed,” said Brubaker, who is
involved with the Midwest effort. Brubaker said that in the past, states
seeking to upgrade existing rail routes, rather than building a new one, had
been subjected to a lower standard of environmental review.

When the stimulus turned
FRA almost overnight from a little-known regulator to the custodian of billions
of dollars in stimulus money, he said, the agency adopted a conservative
reading of federal law mandating environmental reviews.

"They were understaffed and
ill-equipped and they have been cautious,” he said.

At the urging of lawmakers
from the Northeast, Congress voted recently to give the railroad agency $50
million to help states plan for high-speed rail, which could include work on
environmental reviews.

The bad news for the
Northeast is expected to translate to a windfall for other parts of the
country. In the past, critics of rail spending have argued that the Northeast
corridor soaked up too much federal transportation funding; the Government
Accountability Office estimated in March that since 1990, the corridor had
received $3.1 billion – about 75 percent of all federal funds for high-speed rail
related projects in that period.

Rob McCulloch, a
transportation advocate for Environment America, said that ending that
imbalance might have the effect of broadening the political constituency for
rail, which would ultimately benefit the region. But by the same token, he
said, giving money to other regions inexperienced at big passenger rail
projects could mean delays at putting people to work and getting results –
ostensibly the purpose of the stimulus.

"It actually would probably
go a lot further in the Northeast,” McCulloch said. "But the idea is to create
a nationwide network sooner rather than later.”

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