Who got high-speed rail money, and who may not

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Any time now, I expect the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives to schedule a vote on rescinding high speed rail appropriations that haven’t actually been disbursed by the U.S. Treasury. Of $10 billion in grants, less than $4.3 billion has actually gone to the state governments overseeing the rail projects.
It isn’t that Republicans in Congress hate high speed rail, although some surely do. Rather, the public is alarmed at the size of federal budget deficits, and Republican House members pledged to bring deficits down. What better way than to cause money already appropriated not to be spent? Undistributed fast-train grants constitute one of the biggest pots of unspent federal money.
So I asked myself, just suppose the House passed a bill this week sweeping up all the federal government’s undistributed grants as of today. Which high speed projects already have their money? And which ones would be left partly or totally in the cold? Of the five biggest high speed rail programs, here are the winners (they have their grant in hand) and the potential losers (they don’t):
California. Apparently seeing the possibility of a rescission, FRA and the California High speed Rail Authority last week wrapped up a formal grant agreement, and the original $2.4 billion grant was sent on its way west. But another $715 million awarded last fall and earmarked for the first leg of construction in the Central Valley is weeks or months away from being disbursed.
Florida. Three separate grants last year all but paid for the $2.7 billion Orlando-Tampa line. But the new Republican governor, Rick Scott, remains on the fence, unsure whether the state should shoulder operating subsidies if they develop. Better figure it out, Guv. The feds have only disbursed $67 million so far, to pay for project administration. The rest is in danger of going poof.
Illinois. The Chicago-St. Louis program is a two-step project, with the second step still undergoing environmental analysis. But the first part is in the bag, Illinois having gotten almost $1.15 billion to enable 110-mph speeds between Dwight, Ill., 70 miles southwest of Chicago, and Alton, Ill., 25 miles north of St. Louis. Three high speed train pairs will make the end-to-end run as many as 48 minutes faster. No grant has been announced for the second step, which would cost about $3 billion and involve double-tracking the route to enable even faster times by up to eight pairs of 110-mph trains.
North Carolina. A $545 million package of improvements, including 35 miles of double track, between Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte would permit a fourth and possibly fifth pair of passenger trains, at higher (but not high) speeds. But grant agreements totaling only $36 million, to buy passenger cars and improve stations, have been reached. The main grant is still in the talking stage, and state officials are becoming anxious that Congress could grab back that money, reports The News & Observer in Raleigh.

At last word, the state and the Federal Railroad Administration still haggled over the fine print. So none of Washington’s $782 million grant for track relocations and other improvements to permit slightly faster times and two additional Amtrak Cascades round trips (for a total of six) has left the other Washington. When will it? “Your guess is as good as mine,” Scott Witt, director of the state Rail & Marine Office, told Crosscut, a regional news service.
All this rescission talk may be just a symbolic gesture. After all, Democrats retain a 53-47 margin in the U.S. Senate (which would also have to approve a rescission) and President Obama, a supporter of high speed rail, would have to sign such legislation. On the other hand, 23 Democratic-held Senate seats are up for grabs in 2012, versus just 10 held by Republicans. And it would take only a few Senate Democrats agreeing to a rescission to send such a bill to the President.
For an up-to-date list of high speed grants actually obligated to the states so far, and thus out of reach of congressional hands, go here.

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