State pushes new U.S. transportation secretary to keep rail project on track

New Haven –- Connecticut began its courtship Monday of new U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, on whom the state is relying to help expedite a $360 million project to upgrade rail service in the waning years of the Obama administration.

The state is awaiting approval to begin spending federal grants totaling $190.1 million on improvements that will allow expanded service from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield by late 2016.

“I heard the message loud and clear about how much of a priority this is for this state,” said Foxx, 42, who took office as secretary July 2 after four years as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., host city of the 2012 Democratic nomination convention.

Foxx met privately with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the congressional delegation and others, then staged a press event at Union Station, a stop for Amtrak and a terminus for the Metro-North commuter system.

“We need to be a squeaky wheel, that’s what we need to be,” Malloy said. “We have not been a squeaky wheel in Washington when it came to transportation. And by the way, we didn’t have a great track record of completing projects.”

Foxx was making his first state trip as secretary, choosing Connecticut to deliver on a promise Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., extracted from Foxx during his Senate confirmation hearing.

“Connecticut is not just at the table, it is first to the table in his administration,” Blumenthal said.

James Redeker, the state transportation commissioner, said the governor pressed Foxx on the need for approval to begin spending three federal grants that will cover slightly more than half the $360 million rail project.

“The money is not at risk,” Redeker said. But he added, “To meet the schedule, I need to spend it.”

Connecticut recently was rebuffed in its request to treat three grants of $120.1 million, $40 million and $30 million as a single $190.1 million grant, a move that would have simplified administrative oversight and costs.

“If it was possible to report a single project, it would save us time and money,” Redeker said. But he said the inability to do so was “not a big deal.”

The issue received press attention when it came up at a congressional hearing.

Malloy said it was more important to allow the state to spend the three grants simultaneously.

“Alright, we’ll report under different grants, but you gotta let us build it all at once,” he said after the event. “It doesn’t make any sense to try build this section here, and this section here and that section there.”

A bigger concern is reaching sufficient progress in the engineering, design and permit process so that the state can book track-laying machines.

“There are only a few pieces of that equipment, track-laying machines, in the country,” Redeker said. “So you need to decide when you need the project done and work backwards.”

The project entails upgrading the tracks so that trains can travel up to 110 mph and building or improving stations between New Haven and Springfield: Wallingford, Meriden, Hartford, Windsor and Windsor Locks.

The state already is spending money to design and install improved signaling equipment along the line, work that requires the longest lead time, he said.

The line travels an Amtrak right of way, but Congress required that operation of the inter-city passenger service will be open to competitive bidding.

The densely settled Northeast is Amtrak’s political and economic base, actually generating a profit of $300 million in the region, said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

“The Northeast Corridor is the busiest railroad in America,” Foxx said. “It carries 2,200 daily trains and over 250 million passengers a year on commuter rail lines and Amtrak.”

Foxx said that rail is now more popular than air travel on the Boston to New York and Washington to New York routes.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, smiled and nodded in recognition.

“I ride the rails every week, twice a week, going to Washington and coming back,”  DeLauro said. “And, Mr. Secretary, I want the trip to be short.”

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