SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 20, 2014

US cuts fail to slow NE high-speed rail

By STEPHEN SINGER
The Associated Press

---- — 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.

The Federal Railroad Administration said the legislation "does not adversely affect" any of the 150 high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects currently funded in the United States. The agency said 99 percent of high-speed and intercity passenger rail funds are already obligated. Currently, 45 projects are being built or will be soon for about $2.5 billion in 15 states and Washington, D.C. Nineteen construction projects are completed.

Kevin F. Thompson, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement Friday that the budget for passenger rail funding includes improvements for current and future "high performance" rail projects and money for corridor studies. The railroad agency will work with Congress to "identify a predictable and reliable revenue source" in future budgets, he said.

In Connecticut, transportation officials say the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line can be launched in 2016 with federal funding already received.

Beginning in 2009, Connecticut received $40 million in stimulus spending to add a second track along a 10.5-mile segment between Meriden and Newington. The segment is part of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield corridor that will link Connecticut's shoreline with western Massachusetts.

In 2010, Connecticut received about $121 million for double-tracking the remainder of the corridor south of Hartford and station improvements in Wallingford, Meriden, Berlin and Hartford. The state received $30 million in the following year to add a second track in Hartford.

Connecticut also is using up to $280 million in state bond proceeds for the rail line.

More money will be required to complete the remainder of the improvements and the state Department of Transportation says it will "aggressively pursue" money from Washington.

In Vermont, a $72 million rail project between Brattleboro and St. Albans was completed in 2012. The rail line, which received $66 million from Washington and $6 million from New England Central Railroad, upgraded tracks for trains to run faster, cutting travel time by 30 minutes, said Chris Cole, director of policy planning and intermodal development.

State transportation officials have a plan to extend rail service to Montreal and are working with Amtrak and U.S. and Canadian customs agencies and the province of Quebec to advance the proposal. What's needed now is a treaty signed by the U.S. and Canadian governments authorizing train and ferry service, Cole said.

"People will see it's feasible to make it happen," he said.