State transportation officials spent a few days in Washington last week trying to get their hands on more than $500 million in stimulus funds that the Obama administration pledged in January 2010 - but has not yet paid out - for a big railroad upgrade between Charlotte and Raleigh.
North Carolina is in a hurry to secure the money before it is snatched back by new Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, who are looking for opportunities to curtail a few billion dollars in high-speed rail spending.
"I think unless states have actually committed those dollars to specific projects, they're going to have trouble holding onto them," said Gene Conti, secretary of the state Department of Transportation.
The Federal Railroad Administration has formally guaranteed the payout of $4.23 billion from a nationwide total of $8 billion in stimulus grants for high-speed and intercity passenger rail. North Carolina has won commitments for $37 million of its $545 million share.
Republicans said during the recent midterm election campaign that they would try to block the spending of stimulus money that had not yet been allocated. A major target is $12 billion in unobligated transportation stimulus money - including the nearly $4 billion for high-speed rail.
To guarantee that passenger service improvements in North Carolina won't hurt freight rail operations, Conti negotiated a pact in December with the state-owned N.C. Railroad, which owns the tracks, and Norfolk Southern Railway, which runs freight trains between Raleigh and Charlotte.
The agreement was the focus of talks in Washington last week among the railroad administration and railroad officials and Pat Simmons, the DOT Rail Division director. The railroad administration must approve the terms and other guarantees before it releases the remaining $508 million to add double tracks and improve curves, crossings, bridges and stations.
Republicans who took power in November have killed high-speed rail plans in other states. New governors in Ohio and Wisconsin gave back federal rail grants worth $1.2 billion, and Florida's governor is considering what to do with $2.4 billion for a 186-mph line between Tampa and the Orlando airport.
North Carolina's rail project has drawn criticism from the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that regularly opposes transit projects, and its local allies at the John Locke Foundation. But Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat who appointed Conti, has been spared partisan debate about the state's more modest, gradual approach to boosting train travel.
North Carolina's two U.S. senators and all 13 House members signed a letter backing the state's application for rail stimulus money in 2009. When Conti submitted his railroad pact for approval in December, it was accompanied by an updated endorsement with 10 of the original 15 signatures - including those of three Republicans, Sen. Richard Burr and Reps. Sue Myrick and Howard Coble.
N.C. forges ahead
The state is spending its first $37 million in stimulus funds to advance a long-term program, started in the 1990s, to improve stations and make trains faster, more frequent and more reliable. Some of the money is being used to double the size of Cary's rail station, which has become a popular alternative to the crowded depot in downtown Raleigh.
Rail travel times between Charlotte and Raleigh have been cut by an hour. The added stimulus funds sought by North Carolina would cut nearly another hour, boosting the average speed to 86 mph between Raleigh and Charlotte.
"Going to an average speed of 86 mph is really quite good in the United States, and it's not bad in most of the rest of the world," said Jim RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, a Boston nonprofit group that advocates for passenger rail service. "You don't grab headlines, but if you make travel reliable and reasonably quick, people will use it."
That argument rings true for Mary Ann McDow of Rock Hill, S.C., who takes the train north from Charlotte to visit her children in Durham and Washington.
"It's easier and cheaper than driving a car," McDow, 65, said on a recent Wednesday as she rode the Amtrak Piedmont home from Durham.
She was riding the new midday train between Raleigh and Charlotte, added to the schedule in June with the help of stimulus grants.
The trains through Virginia aren't so appealing, McDow said, because of delays often blamed on freight rail traffic congestion. The Amtrak Carolinian from New York can be hours late by the time it reaches Charlotte.
"I've heard they're talking about putting in a faster train through Virginia to Washington, which would be really convenient for me," McDow said.
If the money dries up
While North Carolina officials try to nail down federal funds to finish the Raleigh-Charlotte line, they're moving on plans for a fast new rail shortcut from Raleigh to Richmond - a major project that has yet to win approval from the Obama administration.
DOT engineers had hoped to release their Raleigh-to-Richmond route proposal by late 2010, but now they're aiming for spring. They're working out details including the best path to take through downtown Raleigh.
Rail planners have enough money to map the route and to produce a final environmental impact statement in 2012. After that, they would need more than $2 billion in federal grants to proceed with engineering, land acquisition and construction of the 168-mile line.
Simmons, the DOT rail director, said the engineers will develop a Raleigh-to-Richmond plan with a shelf life of about 10 years. They can pick it up again in the future, if the money turns up.
Meanwhile, he said, North Carolina wants to make use of all the money it has been awarded so far.
"If we don't get another dollar from the federal government, we'll have a major investment of our infrastructure between Raleigh and Charlotte with improved reliability and enhanced travel times," Simmons said.
"You'll see more certainty in our transportation. Uncertainty about whether it's the right thing to do, and whether we're capable of doing it, will all fade away."
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