California, New York, and Illinois are making a play for more than $1.2 billion of high-speed rail funding that was awarded to two Midwestern states whose Republican governors-elect plan to reject the grants.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sent letters earlier this month to incoming governors Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio, warning that if their states do not use high-speed rail grants for their intended purpose they will be reclaimed by the federal government and handed out to other eligible projects.
States have been awarded nearly $8 billion of high-speed rail grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and almost $2.5 billion of grants from congressional appropriations for high-speed rail development. Ohio won $400 million, and Wisconsin won $810 million. Both states’ projects are considered part of a larger corridor. Ohio’s project would link Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus. Wisconsin’s project would link Madison and Milwaukee.
A portion of the funds requires a matching share of at least 20% from the states — a reason for the Midwestern governors’ opposition — and the grants were cast as down payments for a national fast-rail network.
But Walker and Kasich have pushed against the high-speed rail projects that received grants from the Obama administration, saying the money would be better used for highway projects instead.
In addition, Florida’s Republican Governor-elect Rick Scott has suggested he might turn down the more than $2 billion awarded to his state for fast-rail, though his opposition has not been firm enough to prompt a warning letter from LaHood.
California’s outgoing Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reacted to the dispute last week by sending LaHood a letter expressing “a certain sense of astonishment” that states would reject federal grants.
“You are more than welcome to redirect that money to California — where we know how to use it to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs and provide a clean, fast, and low-cost way to travel,” Schwarzenegger said. “If other states refuse your support, we would certainly welcome their shares,” he wrote.
With state and local matches and federal funds included, California has secured $4.3 billion to start building its fast-rail passenger line that would connect the central and southern regions of the state.
Earlier this month, New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo sent a similar letter to LaHood, asking him to “consider redirecting the federal funding to New York” and noting that his state received less grant money than other states.
“High-speed rail could be the 21st Century Erie Canal for New York State and help rebuild Upstate New York’s economy,” Cuomo said of the rail project that he said would eventually link New York City, Toronto, and Montreal.
In addition, lawmakers from LaHood’s home state of Illinois have reportedly expressed interest in taking the grant money unused by Ohio and Wisconsin.
The conflict between the Obama administration and rail skeptics is nothing new. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who is expected to take over leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year, has criticized the administration’s approach to high-speed rail grants.
Mica contends more funding should have gone to the congested Northeast corridor, that the administration’s plan does not take advantage of private-sector capital. He believes projects selected for high-speed rail grants will travel slower than the bullet trains that make up high-speed rail networks in other countries.