CHICAGO — Several Midwestern recipients of portions of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for high-speed rail lobbied for more funding to promote overall rail use and defended their projects’ lack of speed against Republican criticism during a congressional field hearing here Tuesday.
The Federal Railroad Administration in January awarded the $8 billion in stimulus fund grants to 31 states with California, Florida, and the Midwest receiving the largest allocations to promote the development of high-speed corridors.
The Midwest region received a total of $2.6 billion, mostly to go towards increasing the speeds and improving service on existing commuter routes and to establish new or improved links between large cities.
The FRA has another $2.5 billion under congressional authorization to award before the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30.
“These investments are a promising start, but much is needed just to reestablish intercity passenger rail corridors that used to exist, modernize equipment, and implement high-speed service,” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials subcommittee.
Looking over a list of the expected speeds of the proposed rail projects, the committee’s ranking Republican, John Mica of Florida, criticized the characterization of the projects as “high speed.”
“None of these projects even approach high speed,” Mica said during the field hearing on high-speed rail grants. “We are spending a huge amount of money but we are not getting high-speed rail.”
The Midwest was awarded $1.1 billion to improve Chicago-to-St. Louis service providing top speeds of up to 110 miles per hour with the possible future extension to Kansas City; $810 million for Madison-to-Milwaukee service; $12 million for improved service between Chicago and Milwaukee; $400 million for upgrades to service between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati; and $244 million for Chicago-Detroit-Pontiac routes.
While the Chicago-to-St. Louis service offers the top speed among the projects, it falls far short of the speeds attained on routes in Europe and Asia.
Reflecting the partisan divide over the stimulus package, committee Democrats and administration officials jumped to the defense of the projects along with the state recipients. Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin officials said their commuter projects best accomplished one goal of the stimulus — to put people to work quickly on shovel-ready projects.
“The FRA views high-speed and intercity passenger rail service in the context of the transportation markets served and the needs of the passengers rather than as a race to see how fast a piece of equipment can move,” FRA administrator Joseph Szabo said at the hearing. “FRA also believes that trip times between stops, rather than speed, is a critical factor in developing viable high-speed rail corridors.”
Szabo noted the intent of the funding to lay the groundwork and infrastructure for future projects that meet the varying criteria under the federal government’s strategic plan for high-speed rail.
That plan seeks to promote high-speed corridors where trains operate above 150 mph on primary dedicated track, to develop emerging and regional corridor services where trains operate between 90 and 110 mph and 110 and 150 mph, respectively, on shared and dedicated track, and to upgrade the reliability and service on conventional intercity rail services with speeds between 79 and 90 mph.
Illinois officials also said improved commuter rail and projects that unclog a freight bottleneck in the region must be addressed before the costly undertaking of establishing separate tracks and other infrastructure for true high-speed rail corridors.
Illinois included $400 million in its $31 billion partially bond-financed capital program, approved last year, for high-speed rail.
Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., called the funding a “start” and Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Florida, said supporters would continue to press for a dedicated funding stream to be included in the multi-year highway reauthorization bill.