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The not-so-fast track for constructing high-speed rail

The last time intercity passenger trains served Madison, Wisconsin’s capital city, students at the University of Wisconsin campus there were protesting the Vietnam War. The trains stopped running when Amtrak took over passenger service around the country in 1971. But in January, the federal government announced it would give the state $810 million in stimulus money to return passenger trains to Wisconsin’s second-biggest city for the first time in more than four decades.

The announcement clears the way for a new passenger route between Madison and Milwaukee starting in 2013. It will take that long to rebuild track, renovate old stations and build new ones, roll out satellite navigation technology to prevent collisions and even determine who will run the trains. At first, passenger trains will reach top speeds of 79 mph – the same as today’s Amtrak trains – until new trains that can reach 110 mph go into service in 2016.

(The U.S. government classifies “high-speed rail” as trains that reach 110 mph, which is half as fast as many bullet trains in Europe and Asia.)

The $8 billion in federal stimulus money billed as “high-speed rail” funding that will pay for the Wisconsin improvements is going to 31 states to improve service on trains of all speeds. But as even the straightforward case of Wisconsin shows, the path for states to actually build high-speed rail promises to be long, costly and, in some cases, politically contentious.

“These investments have several goals,” Vice President Joe Biden told a Tampa crowd while announcing the grants in January. “First, to improve existing rail lines to make train service faster, more reliable; two, to pull cars off the road, reducing congestion, cutting pollution and increasing productivity; and three, to begin to develop new corridors for high-speed trains that will go from 169 to 230 miles an hour.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood explained, on his blog, that upgrading existing rail lines was an important step in developing high- speed rail. “We’ve made awards to states to improve existing track, repair tunnels and bridges and increase the speeds of lines already serving passengers,” he wrote. “We can’t just put faster trains on old tracks and send them across bridges that need repairs.”

For advocates of high-speed rail, the inclusion of so much money in last year’s stimulus bill was a major shot in the arm. States that hoped to build faster train networks spent years drawing up blueprints, assessing environmental impacts, testing new technologies and straightening short lengths of track. But without federal money, those ambitious plans were stuck on the drawing board.

The passage of the stimulus bill last year, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, marked the first time the federal government put any major money behind high-speed rail.

States clamored for the money. California, which already secured $10 billion in high-speed rail bonding authority from its voters, asked for another $4.7 billion from Washington – more than half the federal money up for grabs – to help pay for trains whisking along at more than 200 mph between San Diego and San Francisco. Midwestern states put in a plug for help to pay for a significantly slower network based out of Chicago. Even Oklahoma got in the game, with a $2 billion request for high-speed service between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. All told, 40 states initially inquired about funding for 278 projects.

Their requests totaled more than $102 billion, nearly 13 times what was available.

Last month, the Obama administration announced that 31 states would get a slice of the pie, but the biggest chunks went to California, Florida and the Midwest. In nearly every case, states got less than they asked for.

“This is a big-picture, long-term endeavor. We always knew $8 billion wasn’t nearly enough for the whole program,” says Rob Kulat, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Administration officials repeatedly have referred to the stimulus funds as “seed money” to be followed by more federal resources.

Indeed, Congress included another $2.5 billion in the transportation budget it passed in December, compared to the $1 billion Obama had originally proposed. The president’s budget for next year also calls for another $1 billion, although Congress could change that amount again.

Questions of cost

The price tag of high-speed rail remains a big sticking point, even in Wisconsin, where the federal government granted the state its full request for the Milwaukee-Madison leg. At issue is whether the state could subsidize the route’s operating costs once trains start to run in 2013. The state, in its application, estimated that the Milwaukee- Madison route would require $7.5 million a year in state subsidies, on top of the $8.1 million needed to keep trains running between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The two leading Republican candidates vying to succeed Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, cited the route’s ongoing costs as the reason they opposed construction of the new route. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker says Wisconsin should reject the stimulus money.

“I’m still waiting to see all those jobs and projects already promised to us from the stimulus, so I’m doubtful our state should accept yet another big check from Washington,” Walker said in a statement. “At a time our state has a $2 billion budget hole, it’s reckless for Governor Doyle and (Milwaukee) Mayor (Tom) Barrett to commit Wisconsin families to footing the bill for the ongoing costs of a rail line without even knowing the full price tag or the effect it will have on our already stressed transportation fund.”

His opponent in the GOP primary, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, went so far as to say he’d stop the project if he became governor. Barrett, the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, by contrast, supports the project as he seeks Doyle’s seat. And, of course, Doyle has been a vocal proponent of the high-speed rail plans, traveling to Spain to ride on the country’s recently built bullet trains and convincing a Spanish train manufacturer to build an assembly plant in Wisconsin.

The partisan split also played out in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, when Republicans unsuccessfully tried to block the state from accepting the stimulus money. “I think the fight has more to do with what we see nationally, which is the argument of whether or not recovery dollars are helping the economy,” says state Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Madison. “I think it was on the basis of that, rather than … the merits of high-speed rail.”

For other states, the more immediate question is whether they can find a way to pay for the construction in the first place.

Florida leaders, for example, plan to meet soon with federal officials to map out their next steps. Florida had asked for $2.6 billion for a route between Orlando and Tampa. It got half that, announced by President Obama in Tampa the day after his State of the Union address.

The state’s original plan called for using trains that could reach 168 mph by the end of 2014. But the shortage of funds may force state officials to alter those plans, once they talk to their federal counterparts.

“Is there a plan through other appropriations to make up the difference? Is there a process or a phase or a staging that they thought about to get us to that number that they gave us? That’s all part of our coordination and conversations with them,” says Kevin Thibault, interim executive director for the Florida Rail Enterprise, which is part of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Likewise, Washington state officials are waiting for more details on how they’re expected to spend the $590 million the state will receive, says Vickie Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Transportation. “The only thing we know at this point,” she says, “is that the funding will enable two additional round trips between Seattle and Portland and improve our reliability up to 88 percent.”

Many of the projects going forward nationally have seemingly modest goals. The feds designated $31 million for Missouri to use on construction projects – such as expanding bridges and improving road crossings – between St. Louis and Kansas City. The objective? Improve the on-time arrival rate to 85 percent, compared to 16 percent today.

“We’re not out to make an Asian- or European-style system right out of the box,” says Kulat, the FRA spokesman.

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