SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Nation/World

January 20, 2014

US cuts fail to slow NE high-speed rail

HARTFORD, Conn. Higher-speed trains and intercity rail service in New England remain on track despite a congressional budget deal that cut off spending for high-speed rail, though future expansion plans could be in doubt.

Transportation officials in Connecticut and Massachusetts looking to extend rail service from the shoreline of Long Island Sound to western Massachusetts say money has already been allocated from stimulus spending in 2009 and other sources of federal funding. In addition, work on a higher-speed rail line in Vermont was completed in 2012.

"There should be no impact in terms of funding commitments made to date," said Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in Springfield, Mass.

A $73 million project rebuilding a north-south rail line along the Connecticut River connecting Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Greenfield will be finished by the end of this year, he said. Trains will travel at an average speed of 70 mph, making it competitive with cars along Interstate 91, Brennan said. Before track upgrades that included new ties, a bridge and signals, the top speed was 10 mph, forcing rail officials to divert trains east to Palmer, where they were switched back onto a north-south line.

The $1.1 trillion budget that axes spending for high-speed rail is disappointing because the Northeast rail corridor is "very robust," Brennan said. Planners will soon be discussing proposals for a rail link between Boston, Springfield, Worcester and south to Connecticut and north to Montreal, he said. Such a project will need "substantial amounts of money," Brennan said.

Democratic President Barack Obama on Friday signed the budget that funds the federal government through the end of September.

In budget negotiations, Republicans in Congress eliminated funding for high-speed rail. Conservatives have taken aim for years at the transit program, a priority of Obama's. Critics called it misguided and with billions steered by the Obama administration excessively costly. Republican governors in Florida and Wisconsin joined the fray, rejecting federal money for their own rail projects.

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