High-speed rail planners get dose of reality

08/04/09 7:34AM By Ross Sneyd
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) Transportation officials from around New England have visions of a high-speed rail network, but on Monday they got a dose of reality.

The Obama administration has eight billion dollars for trains - and demands for 13 times more money from 40 different states.

VPR's Ross Sneyd reports.

(Sneyd) Even before the stimulus money for rail was proposed, Massachusetts state Senator Stan Rosenberg decided New England needed to do something about the regional passenger rail network.

He organized a New England "rail summit" as part of this week's eastern regional meeting of the Council of State Governments in Burlington.

(Rosenberg) "Even as we were planning this meeting, the secretaries of transportation got themselves organized and so that's how we ended up here and so I was filling a vacuum, a temporary vacuum, which now, happily, will be filled by the transportation leaders in the region."

(Sneyd) About 160 people spilled out of a hotel meeting room, twice the expected crowd.

New England has ambitious plans to extend passenger rail from Boston to all of the far corners of New England. Train speeds would increase and old, disbanded routes would be re-established.

Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis is a longtime cheerleader for rail and he led the summit.

(Dukakis) "I don't know if you share my frustration, but I'm constantly reminding people that back in 1867 Irish and Chinese immigrants were laying 4 miles of track a day on the transcontinental railroad. It seems like it takes 10 years to lay 4 miles of track."

(Sneyd) The Obama administration agrees. In the economic recovery act, money was designated for regional high-speed rail networks.

Joseph Szabo is the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He says the competition is stiff for the stimulus money. Forty states have filed 278 applications for projects that would total 102 billion dollars.

Szabo says that's a lot more money than his agency got in stimulus money.

(Szabo) There's going to be second and third and hopefully fourth and fifth and sixth rounds, which means people are going to have some patience and understand that certainly not everybody can be first in line."

(Sneyd) If a powerful New England congressman has any say, there will be plenty of opportunities to get in line.

Congressman John Olver of Massachusetts is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that decides how much money goes to rail. His panel already has recommended adding $4 billion more to the Obama administration's request.

He predicts rail improvements will total as much as the nation has spent building interstate highways.

(Olver) "And the authorizing committee has now put up at least a draft which is going to change the authorization of less than a year ago to about $8 billion per year for a six-year period. And my prediction is we'll be doing $20 billion a year on this initiative by the end of the next decade."

(Sneyd) Olver says if rail advocates in Congress have their way, a half trillion dollars will be spent over coming years. And he says that should be enough to pay for New England's vision.

For VPR News, I'm Ross Sneyd.

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john_olver joseph_szabo michael_dukakis stan_rosenberg high-speed_rail politics
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