Feds offer little help for Connecticut high-speed rail project

Washington -– A U.S. Transportation Department official Tuesday gave Connecticut little hope of advancing on a high-speed rail project that would connect New Haven to Springfield, Mass.

At a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, asked witness John Porcari, deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation, for help that would allow the state to spend a $120 million grant for the high speed rail project.

But Porcari was not very helpful.

He said the Malloy administration’s proposal to combine other federal grants that have been allocated to the state with the $120 million grant is a no-go.

“We appreciate the vision Connecticut has,” Porcari said. But “we simply can’t take three grants and combine them.”

The high-speed rail project would add 11 round-trip trains to the route between Hartford and New Haven, for a total of 17 trains traveling the line, compared with six today.

Esty also asked Porcari if the Federal Railroad Administration could help the Malloy administration move forward with the project.

“Our state staff is worried about not having the capacity for this oversight,” Esty said. 

Porcari responded that the FRA was “strained right now” by budget cuts and “needs to husband its resources.”

But he promised to speak to Connecticut’s transportation commissioner, James P. Redeker, “and explore ways to make it work faster.”

The discussion of  Connecticut’s high-speed rail project was held amid an annual fight for Amtrak funding in Congress.

House Republicans want the railroad to wean itself from federal subsidies by leveraging its physical assets -– like stations and rights of way — to generate revenue.

“When are we prepared to open up the Amtrak monopoly on passenger rail service and let the private sector compete in some of these routes?” asked Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. at the transportation hearing.

Mica called Amtrak a “Soviet-style train operation” and cited as proof of its poor operations the marooning of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., for an hour and a half when he was traveling on an Amtrak train to Connecticut to visit Rep. John Larson, D-1st District.

The  Senate and House appropriations committees last month approved very different budgets for Amtrak for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1: The House set the budget at $950 million, and the Senate at $1.45 billion. Amtrak’s current federal subsidy is $1.38 billion.

Amtrak head Joe Boardman has said privatizing the railroad won’t work. In a statement last month, he said even the Senate’s funding level doesn’t go far enough.

“In order for the nation’s intercity passenger rail system to reach its full potential,” he said in a statement, “Amtrak will need higher and sustained levels of federal capital funding.”

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