CHICAGO - Facing tough national competition, eight Midwestern governors joined together this week to present a united front in their push to land a share of $8 billion in federal funds available for high-speed rail projects from the economic stimulus program.
Chicago would serve as the hub of the network that would branch out into eight other states, connecting small and large cities, bus stations, and airports through 3,000 miles of high-speed rail service and conventional intercity rail service.
The overall plan does not have a price tag but the initial projects, to establish service from Chicago to Detroit and to St. Louis and Milwaukee and then to Madison, is estimated at $4 billion. Trains would travel at speeds of up to 110 mph, compared to under 80 now.
Future lines would run to Indianapolis, Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati, other cities in Michigan, and extend the Milwaukee line up to Green Bay. Service to Minneapolis and from St. Louis to Kansas City and west from Chicago to the Quad Cities on the Illinois/Iowa border is part of the larger plan.
To promote their efforts jointly in hopes of improving their chances, the governors signed a memorandum of understanding at a rail summit in Chicago on Monday. Under the agreement, the states are establishing the Midwest Rail Steering Group to coordinate their applications to the Federal Railroad Administration for funding and lobbying efforts.
"We are stronger working as a region than we are individually, and I want to thank the other Midwest governors for their cooperation and commitment," said host Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois. "We are determined to take full advantage of federal recovery funds and bring high-speed rail to Illinois and the Midwest. Today's agreement will help make our vision a reality."
The governors signing the MOU were Quinn, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley also signed the agreement.
Daley, Quinn, Culver, Doyle, Granholm, Strickland, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., attended the conference.
"We can make high-speed rail a reality in Illinois and the Midwest," Durbin said. "I want our region to continue to lead the nation in preparing for a high-speed rail network. This network will create jobs, ease traffic congestion, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
Competition is shaping up to be fierce for the available funds, although the group is hoping railroad support for their network and the local roots of President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, will help. Chicago is the only city served by all of the six major freight railroad operators and the industry has pushed for more funding to support expanded capacity that would reduce bottlenecks that occur here because of the heavy traffic.
The Federal Railroad Administration last week said it had received 278 preliminary applications seeking $102 billion of high-speed rail grants. The administration received applications from 40 states and the District of Columbia, along with private entities, before the July 10 deadline. About $13 billion came from Midwestern applicants.
LaHood has acknowledged that the $8 billion could not meet the "tremendous" demand for projects but pledged to work with states and regions to help with funding for projects that don't make the cut.
The Senate Appropriations Committee's transportation panel is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would provide $4 billion of capital assistance to high-speed rail projects in the coming fiscal year. The bill was approved by the House late last week. Obama had requested $1 billion annually for high-speed rail in his budget request.
As the states promote their bids for federal funds, many have already set aside funding for the planning, and in some cases the construction, of high-speed rail service even as they face a sea of red ink due to dwindling tax revenue and growing health care and other costs.
In Illinois' $31 billion capital program signed into law recently by Quinn, the state allocated $400 million in bonding for high-speed rail and another $150 million to promote the expansion of existing Amtrak service and $300 million to help improve rail infrastructure. The state Department of Transportation and Union Pacific Railroad recently signed a development agreement for the $2.7 billion Chicago to St. Louis line.
Wisconsin has existing authority for general obligation issuance of $80 million to support rail passenger route development, according to capital finance director Frank Hoadley. Doyle also recently announced an agreement with Spanish train manufacturer Talgo to put two Talgo train sets into service and to establish new assembly and maintenance facilities in Wisconsin.
Minnesota included $26 million of support for passenger rail projects in its 2009 bonding bill package, said state debt manager Kathy Kardell.
Ohio's 2010-2011 transportation budget includes a proposal to establish passenger rail service connecting Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, and Cleveland. Officials expect the project, estimated to cost between $250 million and $400 million, to be paid for with federal stimulus funding.
The rail system would be tied to the Midwest network. While the state has set aside roughly $500,000 to study the cost of inter-city rail service, no funds or bonds have been set aside for the Midwest high-speed project, said Ohio Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Varner.
Iowa is partnering with freight rail carriers to upgrade its existing tracks to accommodate higher-speed cars, which carries a roughly $130 million price tag.
As for the Midwest's competition, the Western U.S. accounted for the largest number of pre-applicants, with 108 request for grants totaling $38 billion. Northeastern planners pre-applied for $35 billion for projects. Project sponsors in the South and Southeast asked for $16 billion. Midwest planners sought $13 billion.
Final applications are due Aug. 24 for individual projects, and Oct. 2 for corridor programs.
Caitlin Devitt and Audrey Dutton contributed to this story.