California, Florida, Get $1.7B For Rail

WASHINGTON — California and Florida are the biggest winners of high-speed rail grants, securing $1.7 billion out of a total of $2.5 billion to help close ­funding gaps for ambitious rail projects that have already received large federal grants.

The awards will be formally announced Thursday by federal officials. The money comes from the federal high-speed intercity passenger rail program, which received $2.5 billion from Congress in fiscal 2010 to dole out to projects across the country.

The grants supplement earlier seed money that was awarded by the Federal Railroad Administration in January from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s $8 billion rail fund. In some cases the grants will supplement competitive awards from a separate discretionary fund that encompassed all modes of surface transportation.

The earlier round of high-speed rail awards, totaling $8 billion, similarly favored California and Florida, giving them $2.25 billion and $1.25 billion, respectively.

California won more than $900 million from this round of awards, including $715 million for rail development in the San Joaquin Valley area between Merced and Bakersfield and $16 million for rail between San Francisco and San Jose.

“Our years of hard work have paid off and the Valley will kick off construction of our nation’s first high-speed rail system,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. He authored a $9.95 billion bond measure that voters approved two years ago to pay for a high-speed rail network that will start with a line between Los Angeles and San Francisco that later can be expanded to San Diego and Sacramento.

Costa’s office said the voter-approved bonds would provide a 20% match that is necessary for states to receive the grants.

Florida received $800 million for the first phase of its fast train between Tampa and Orlando, which is estimated to cost a total of $2.65 billion.

Florida sought $1.1 billion from this pool of grants, and the award leaves the state $300 million short of what is needed for the first phase of its plan.

But the shortage is not a deal-breaker for the project, according to Nazih ­Haddad, chief operating officer for the Florida Rail Enterprise. He cited as a positive the fact that the FRA gave Florida just over one-third of available appropriations for fiscal 2010.

“It shows you how interested they are in this project, and they believe it is a good project,” Haddad said. “Clearly, it is not enough to take us all the way through to completion.”

The Florida Rail Enterprise, which is implementing the high-speed rail program, will meet with federal officials to discuss potential for more grant money as it ­becomes available and determine what other funding options are available from the federal government and private sector, according to Haddad.

“We’re going to work with our partners to make this happen,” he said, pointing out that an industry forum is scheduled to be held Nov. 8-9 in Orlando.

Nearly 700 people have signed up to attend the forum so far, including major rail developers. The forum will provide an update on the project and focus on development opportunities around high-speed rail stations.

Pat Christiansen, chairman of the Florida Statewide Passenger Rail Commission and a shareholder at Akerman Senterfitt LLP, said the FRA grant is great news for Florida because it supports a needed infrastructure project that has the potential to boost the economy and create jobs.

“Clearly, [the FRA funding] is a commitment on the part of the federal government that they intend to fund the rest of this,” Christiansen said. “You never get all the money for these projects up front. We anticipate that we will get it all.”

Florida expects to release a request for qualifications next month seeking a concessionaire to design, build, finance, maintain and operate the first segment of the high speed rail system.

The Midwest region’s rail initiative won $230 million to build a new Amtrak route between Chicago and Iowa City by 2015, according to Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Illinois and Iowa are part of a nine-state consortium that has been pressing federal rail officials to help fund a rail network in the Midwest, the hub of which would be in Chicago.

“Securing such a significant investment from the federal government wouldn’t have been possible without the coordinated efforts of state and local officials in Illinois and Iowa and the strong community support” for expanded Amtrak service, Durbin said in a release.

Michigan will receive $150 million for a rail project between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, according to members of Michigan’s congressional delegation. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said the grant will be integral to rail service between Detroit and Chicago.

Despite excitement over the Midwestern states’ winnings, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association was “disappointed that Illinois did not receive the $8 million requested to design a St. Louis to Chicago bullet train, but the fat lady has not yet sung,” according to a statement by the group’s executive director, Rick Harnish.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association agreed that this round of grants is not the last hope for the Chicago-St. Louis line. Instead, it is just a matter of the federal government having to choose projects when the amount of funding requested vastly exceeded what was available.

The Chicago-St. Louis rail proposal was not as far along in the planning process as were proposals from California and Florida.

“We try to encourage people to be patient, because this is the beginning of a whole new [program] in our country,” said Andy Kunz, president and chief executive officer of the national HSRA.

In terms of “physical planning, application process, and lining up all the politics [of] getting federal, state, and local leaders all on board,” the Chicago route is third in line after California and Florida, Kunz said.

The Northeast region won grants as well. Lawmakers, including House Transportation Committee ranking Republican John Mica of Florida, have pushed for the federal government to invest in high-speed rail in the congested corridor.

Massachusetts won $121 million to repair tracks and rail infrastructure between Springfield and New Haven, Conn., according to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Richard Neal. The award is on top of $40 million of stimulus funds the project already received.

In addition, the state won $32.5 million to design an expansion of Boston’s South Station that would be helpful for increased growth of rail service in the state and region. Rail projects for the corridor between Boston and Concord, N.H., won $2.24 million. The corridor between Boston and Portland, Maine, won $600,000.

Smaller prizes were scattered around the country, including multimillion-dollar grants to Minnesota, Georgia, New York, and Oregon. The funds will support efforts to bring high-speed rail to FRA-designated corridors.

Virginia won $45 million to do the early engineering and environmental work that will be necessary to build high-speed rail between Richmond and Washington, D.C., according to Democratic Virginia Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner. The project will contribute to high-speed passenger rail development along the entire Southeast, Warner said in a release.


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