State gets $30 million of $227 million sought for rail project

WASHINGTON–Connecticut won a small fraction of the high-speed rail funds it had sought from Washington, snagging $30 million in federal money for the New Haven-to-Springfield high-speed rail project.

Gov. Dannel Malloy lauded the decision, announced Monday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. But the $30 million in federal aid falls far short of $227 million that Connecticut officials had said was needed to complete Phase 3 of the high-speed rail line, which Malloy has made a high-profile priority.

State transportation officials said Monday they were not sure how much progress they could make on the rail line with a $30 million federal contribution, along with the state’s own financial commitment of $97 million. The total price tag on the third phase is $324.3 million.

“We are reviewing the project to see what we can accomplish with the additional $30 million,” said Judd Everhart, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. “While the $30 million grant is very good news, Connecticut had applied for $227 million.”

Connecticut’s pitch for the federal money came after Florida’s governor rejected $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds, freeing up that money for other states. Malloy made a particularly aggressive plea, including in-person visits and phone calls to LaHood and other federal Department of Transportation (DOT) officials.

But Connecticut was among two dozen states that sought a slice of the Florida funds. In all, the federal DOT  received nearly 100 applications for various rail projects around the country, totaling $10 billion.

On Monday, LaHood announced that from among those, DOT chose 15 states and Amtrak to receive $2.02 billion for 22 high-speed intercity passenger projects. The investment in the Northeast corridor to speed up trains is “unprecedented,” DOT said in a news release, and includes a $450 million award to Amtrak to expand capacity and reliability in the region. In all, the Northeast corridor is slated to get $795 million for a range of projects.

In a statement, Connecticut’s congressional delegation acknowledged some disappointment but said the federal aid would still bring significant benefits.

“These improvements to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and Connecticut’s New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line are essential to our continued effort to ensure strategic infrastructure investments,” the delegation statement said. “While $30 million for the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line is less than we had hoped for, we remain committed as a delegation to continue to seek future funds for this important project.”

Among other states, New York was awarded $295 million for new routes that will ease delays to and from Manhattan, along with $58 million to upgrade tracks and operations along the Empire Corridor. Rhode Island got $25 million to design and build a track in Kingston. California got $300 million, part of an effort to build the nation’s first 220-mile per hour rail system. And the Midwest will see $404 million in new construction and upgrades, particularly in Chicago and Detroit.

A USDOT spokeswoman, Brie Sachse, declined to specify why Connecticut didn’t get more, other than sheer competition.

“We’ve had an overwhelming demand to participate in the high-speed rail program,” Sachse said. “We evaluated every application through a merit-driven process that considered the project’s benefits to the economy, the environment, and to the public.”

Another USDOT official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, noted that Connecticut has, to date, received a total of $190 million for this project, putting it eighth among all states in total federal high-speed rail funds awarded. The $30 million for Connecticut will allow the state to complete double-tracking segments along the New Haven-to-Hartford-to-Springfield corridor, DOT’s official statement said.

“This is great news and a win for the state of Connecticut as we seek to increase mass transportation throughout the region,” Malloy said in a statement Monday. “The rail project will form the backbone of an interconnected, regional rail network linking key economic centers through the northeast corridor.”

Malloy noted that the $450 million in funding for Amtrak will pay for upgrades on the Washington-to-Boston rail corridor, which he said would ease congestion along the Stamford-New Haven segment. In all, DOT said, residents in the Northeast will see train speeds increased from 135 to 160 miles per hour on key segments, among other benefits.

Malloy has said that once completed, the 62-mile New Haven-Springfield rail corridor will carry 50 daily passenger trains that hit speeds up to 110 miles an hour. “This line will provide some of the best rail service in the nation,” he said.

But how the state will finish the line when it’s now nearly $200 million short in hoped-for federal aid is unclear. To be sure, the $30 million in reallocated Florida money is in some ways a boon because it wasn’t expected to be available.

But Connecticut officials saw that as a way to make up for an earlier shortfall; the state got $100 million less than it had requested in a fiscal year 2010 application for high-speed rail money.

So while double-tracking might proceed, other essential work could be delayed. For example, the state’s outline for the project says that 180 bridges and culverts need to be upgraded to accommodate the double tracking. Along with drainage improvements, the cost of that is $27 million, according to a summary of the state’s grant proposal. To install new signal systems and upgrade crossings will cost $46 million. And improving station platforms, parking and pedestrian bridge access is nearly $50 million.

Malloy noted in a letter to LaHood that Connecticut had committed $97 million in state matching funds for Phase 3. The federal DOT has already awarded Connecticut $161 million for Phases 1 and 2, with the state devoting $162 million. Everhart said that although the federal government ante is only at $30 million for Phase 3 so far, the state is still commited its $97 million share for Phase 3.

Colleen Flanagan, Malloy’s spokeswoman, said the governor is committed to the project. She said he’s now working with James Redeker, his interim DOT Commissioner, and the state’s congressional delegation “to figure out next steps.”

Those next steps could be steep. Although the Obama Administration has touted its commitment to high-speed rail, the White House agreed to slash those funds in the fiscal year 2011 budget agreement recently reached with congressional Republicans.

That deal included a decimating $2.9 billion cut in high-speed rail dollars for the current fiscal year. Although there’s no money available for this year, USDOT noted that the President has proposed $8 billion for high-speed intercity passenger rail in his 2012 budget.