Washington - The Obama administration parceled out $2 billion Monday for high-speed rail projects in the Northeast, Midwest and California, repurposing a pot of funds rejected in February by Florida's Republican governor.
Amtrak's Washington-Boston Northeast Corridor is the biggest winner, getting nearly $800 million of the funds; followed by the Midwest, with $400 million going toward Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St. Louis routes; and California, with $300 million for the state's planned San Francisco-Los Angeles high-speed route. An additional $336 million is designated for new locomotives and passenger cars for the Midwest and California.
"These projects will put thousands of Americans to work, save hundreds of thousands of hours for American travelers every year, and boost U.S. manufacturing by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in next-generation, American-made locomotives and railcars," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
The Florida project was supposed to be a showcase of President Barack Obama's $10 billion high-speed rail initiative, but Gov. Rick Scott canceled the project, saying he didn't want the state's taxpayers to be on the hook for future operating costs. The Tampa-Orlando line would have featured 168-mph trains on newly constructed track. The starter money for that project now will go largely toward improving slower existing rail service.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and an Amtrak critic, said Monday that he favors private investment in high-speed rail over Obama's approach of "scattered funding to numerous slower-speed projects."
"We need to bring in the private sector to finance, design, build, operate and maintain true high-speed service in the Northeast Corridor if we are going to have any chance of success," Mica said.
Despite efforts by Republicans in the House of Representatives and some governors to scuttle Obama's high-speed rail effort, 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak applied for the additional funds in early April.
"While other states may ignore the benefits of high-speed rail, California is ready to put investments to work immediately," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Monday. "By investing in our state's infrastructure, we increase mobility options and lower our dependence on foreign oil at a time of rising gas prices, while reducing road congestion and preserving the air we breathe."
Noticeably absent from the new list of recipients: Wisconsin. Republican Gov. Scott Walker campaigned hard last fall against an $800 million high-speed rail project between Milwaukee and Madison, and sent the funds back to Washington shortly after he took office. That money was reallocated to Florida's project, until Scott pulled the plug on it.
Walker then went back last month and requested $150 million to improve train service on the Milwaukee-Chicago corridor.
Among the winners:
NORTHEAST: Officially, it's the only U.S. high-speed rail corridor, but aging bridges and tunnels, curving tracks and urban congestion often slow Amtrak trains far below their top speeds. Nearly half the $800 million for upgrades in this corridor will help boost speeds and cut travel times between Philadelphia and New York, two of Amtrak's busiest stations. Amtrak's flagship Acela Express has a top speed of 150 mph but seldom reaches it.
MIDWEST: The popular Chicago-Detroit and Chicago-St. Louis lines long have been the target of improvements for track and signals that hold trains to maximum speeds of 79 mph. Illinois and Michigan will split roughly $400 million to boost top speeds to 110 mph.
CALIFORNIA: The state will receive $300 million to build the first segment of a 220-mph statewide system. The project now has $3.5 billion in federal funds to get moving, and construction is scheduled to begin next year in the San Joaquin Valley on what could be the first truly high-speed passenger railroad in the U.S. With Florida's project canceled, all eyes are California.
MANUFACTURING: U.S. manufacturers will build 11 locomotives and 63 passenger cars for several of Amtrak's existing routes in the Midwest and California. The funds come with a "Buy American" caveat, but foreign companies that commit to expanding their U.S. operations can participate.
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