Amtrak now in line for high-speed rail grants

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Here is a prediction I would almost bet my life on: When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redistributes as early as next month the $2.4 billion high speed rail grant that Florida’s governor rejected, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor will get a sizable chunk of it. And when this happens, a major flaw in the HSR program will be repaired.

Heretofore, only state departments of transportation could apply for high speed rail grants, and very little of the $10.5 billion already awarded trickled down to Northeast Corridor projects. Maryland and other states got $112 million, primarily for engineering and environmental work toward a new Baltimore tunnel and a new station at Baltimore’s BWI airport. And Connecticut received $40 million to build a segment of double track on Amtrak’s feeder line from New Haven to Springfield, Mass.

Now a coalition of U.S. senators (all Democrats) from states along the Northeast Corridor has persuaded LaHood to recognize the corridor as worthy of grants in its own right, allowing Amtrak to apply directly for money. Says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari: “We will be reaching out to states along the corridor to determine joint application opportunities, as well as reviewing any projects that Amtrak might apply for independently.”

It struck me as both strange and a bit cruel that President Obama’s signature transportation initiative ignored until now the one true high speed corridor we already possess. The Northeast Corridor is heavily used, and the Acela trainsets between Boston and Washington, D.C., more than pay their fully allocated operating costs, contributing $100 million last year toward the NEC’s capital needs.

And those capital needs are enormous. Just to erase the backlog of deferred maintenance will cost more than $5 billion, Amtrak has estimated. As for improvements that will unlock logjams or increase speeds, there are many. Acelas are limited to 135 mph south of New York City because because of 1930s-era catenary. It’s time to replace this aging infrastructure with constant-tension catenary that already enables 150-mph running in places between Boston and New Haven, Conn. The series of tunnels west of Penn Station in Baltimore hold trains to 30 mph; they’re candidates for replacement, although the job will take 12 years. Those two additional coaches Amtrak wants to buy for the 20 six-car Acela trainsets would quickly pay for themselves by adding 132 seats to each schedule. Amtrak is seeking a new tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan, and additional tracks between Newark, N.J., and the river. My fingers grow weary just listing the needs and possibilities between Boston and Washington.

That’s why LaHood is all but certain to shower federal money down on Amtrak. And it’s one of those times when good policy is also good politics. John Mica, the conservative Florida Republican who chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is no fan of Amtrak management, but he is a champion of investing more in the Northeast Corridor. So let’s get with it. — Fred W. Frailey

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