Malloy on St. Patrick’s Day: Lookin’ for the green

WASHINGTON–Gov. Dannel Malloy still has his sights on winning an extra $100 million in federal funds for the state’s high-speed rail line. But on Thursday he was scrambling to make sure Connecticut didn’t lose millions of dollars in federal aid for a related rail project now in the design phase.

At a meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Thursday, Malloy said his top agenda item was securing $40 million in already-promised rail improvement dollars, which would help pay for double-tracking 10 miles of line from Newington to New Britain. The state won those funds under the federal stimulus bill, but the money hasn’t been released by the Department of Transportation yet.

And if that cash isn’t out DOT’s door by April 8, Malloy said, federal officials could “recapture” the money.

“This is vitally important,” Malloy said. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to be in front of the secretary and the deputy today.”

Malloy said the funding has been held up by bureaucratic red tape. “A lot of this has to do with agreements with Amtrak and control of the line,” he said.

A spokesman for Amtrak, Cliff Cole, declined to say specifically what the obstacles were, but he said Amtrak was currently in talks with transportation officials in Washington and Connecticut.

“We’re not going to go into details about negotiations publicly, but we are talking to these parties and… our goal is to have a final agreement by the April 8th deadline,” Cole said. “We all realize this is a very important project–important to commuters, important to rail travel in general.”

Malloy said he received assurances from LaHood that DOT would address the issue quickly. “Everyone … understands the need to fast-track these discussions and execute whatever documents are necessary, otherwise we could potentially lose [the money],” he said. “I was assured that we’re now looking at a timeline that should allow any issues outstanding to be resolved early next week.”

If Connecticut gets the $40 million in federal funds, the state could begin construction on the 10-mile stretch this year, said Judd Everhart, a state Department of Transportation spokesman. That project is part of a broader proposed high-speed rail line that proponents hope will run from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield.

Malloy said he also discussed that project with LaHood, as Connecticut seeks to get a slice of the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds that Florida’s governor rejected earlier this month. LaHood announced last week that those funds would be divvied up through a competitive grant process, with applications due April 4.

“We have a very robust application for allocation of the Florida dollars, and I’m being quite aggressive in arguing our case that we should be assigned at least $100 million of that” for the New Haven-to-Springfield line, Malloy said.

What would set Connecticut apart from other states seeking that money? Malloy said first and foremost was the state’s commitment to the project. He noted that Connecticut has committed 54 percent of the funding for the project, or $260 million, approved by the State Bond Commission last year.

“The strongest argument we have is that… we have an administration that is very serious about getting these projects done and executed,” he said. “The state is willing to put in more money than others in these types of projects.”

He also said that since it’s part of a broader high-speed network proposed for the Northeast corridor, it has national significance. “We’re pulling for it. Vermont is pulling for it. And Massachusetts is pulling for it,” he said.

Florida’s Republican governor balked at a similar high-speed rail project in his state because he feared the state would be on the hook for cost overruns, as well as the long-term operational costs.

Malloy said he didn’t share those worries and instead saw the project as a must-do for job growth and long-term development in the state. “It really could be a gigantic corridor of development, linking educational institutions, manufacturing opportunities and real research opportunities,” Malloy said. “In the short run, we get jobs, construction jobs.  In the long run, over the next 40 years, you could be talking about a line of service” comparable to the New Haven Metro-North Rail line.

“We’re a very transportation constrained state, and the rejuvenation of rail is the least costly alternatively to some of the other projects,” said Malloy. He said he also raised the possibility of connecting the high-speed rail line to Bradley International Airport.

Malloy started his day in Washington at Vice President Joseph Biden’s official residence, for a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast. Among the 45 or so attendees were Ireland’s new prime minister, Taoiseach Enda Kenny; Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd; and Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine.

All the men were sporting green ties, as they dipped into their plates of eggs florentine, applewood smoked bacon, and Irish soda bread.

After his meeting with LaHood, Malloy headed to the Capitol for a session with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, also focused on transportation issues. And he was scheduled to meet at the Democratic Governors Association with “a cadre of business interests,” part of an effort “to entice folks to bring jobs to Connecticut,” Malloy said.

He ends Thursday with another St. Patrick’s Day celebration, this one in the White House’s East Room, with President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.