State could get a rail windfall

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 18, 2010 

High-speed rail in North Carolina could get a boost if the federal government shifts money that had been headed to other states.

Speaking in Charlotte on Wednesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the federal government could reallocate money planned for Ohio and Wisconsin because their governors-elect have indicated they don't want to use the high-speed funds. The states were slated to receive $1.2 billion in aid.

LaHood praised North Carolina leaders for their work on high-speed rail, telling an audience of regional leaders that because of the efforts, "you all are going to be in the high-speed rail business."

The state has received federal money for high speed rail, and a transportation spokesman said no decision about reallocation of money from Wisconsin and Ohio has been made. The governors-electhaven't taken office, and neither state has formally announced it will decline the grants.

LaHood said the federal government wants to have 80 percent of the country connected through high-speed rail within 25 years. More than $10 billion has been set aside for the effort.

Work has started

North Carolina and Virginia won federal grants totaling $623 million in January and an additional $68 million in October for the shared Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Charlotte to Washington. The two states have asked for $7.1 billion to complete the 475-mile project.

A big share of the money would go for design and construction of a shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond - where trains would travel as fast as 110 mph - cutting 35 miles and about two hours' travel time from the current rail route between the two state capitals. The rest is for improvements on rail lines between Charlotte and Raleigh, and between Richmond and Washington, where 90 mph is the planned top speed.

North Carolina used federal funds to start improvements at the Cary and Burlington rail depots, refurbish locomotives and launch midday service between Raleigh and Charlotte. Passenger counts rose 17 percent in the state in the fiscal year that ended in September, compared with a 6 percent increase nationwide.

Republican John Kasich, Ohio's governor-elect, has said he will reject more than $400 million promised by the Obama administration this year for passenger train service there. Scott Walker, the Republican governor-elect in Wisconsin, promised to cancel a project that won $810 million in high-speed rail grants.

Pat Simmons, head of the state DOT rail division, said North Carolina is ready to make use of rail money other states turn down.

"When these opportunities come up, we want to compete for them and take advantage of them," Simmons said. "We have a solid program of investment, and a solid capacity to deliver on that program."

abethea@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-6013

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