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Bid for US aid envisions wide N.E. rail system

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Transportation officials from six states sketched their vision for an advanced New England rail network yesterday, seeking federal help for projects that range from repairing a rusted bridge in Haverhill to building a bullet train that would whisk travelers from Boston to Montreal.

Described as the first regionwide passenger rail agenda, the New England system would speed up trains, increase service, and open new commuter lines throughout the region - as well as provide high-speed routes linking New England to Quebec with 110 mile-per-hour trains.

The officials acknowledged they face long odds, with stiff competition from projects proposed by states in the West and Midwest. But they said New England needs an economic boost and a better transportation system, and the best way to jump-start the effort is by using some of the $8 billion set aside for rail projects in the economic stimulus package approved by Congress in February.

“This plan will not only improve mobility and the environment, but also economic growth and development in New England,’’ said James A. Aloisi Jr., Massachusetts transportation secretary, who attended a meeting of the six states in Burlington, Vt., where the plan was unveiled.

Officials said just getting the plan down on paper has significant political value and will lay the foundation for future rail construction.

The projected price tag of the Northeast projects totals $35 billion - far more than is available nationwide. Other states also are aiming high. Overall, the government has been deluged with $102 billion in applications, according to the US Department of Transportation.

“It promises to be a very difficult fight, because this is a discretionary program, and there are a lot of regions that are vying for this money,’’ said Joseph F. Marie, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Transportation. “While $8 billion sounds like a lot of money, the need exceeds it tenfold. It’s really important to manage expectations.’’

Forty states and the District of Columbia have filed 278 applications for the money, which are due later this month and will be awarded in the fall. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other Obama administration officials have hinted that California, Florida, and the Midwest, whose high-speed rail plans are closer to being “shovel ready,’’ are front-runners to receive much of the funding - Washington’s largest-ever commitment to high-speed rail.

LaHood told the Wall Street Journal in May that California, which has been developing plans for a $40 billion bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles for more than a decade, was “way, way, way, ahead’’ of other applicants. California requested $22.3 billion in high-speed rail projects under the stimulus program.

Still, New England officials said they were optimistic that the federal government was keeping an open mind and that at least some of the projects in the regional rail blueprint will make the cut.

“I think at the end of the day New England will get its fair share,’’ said Aloisi, who said he had a cordial meeting with LaHood last month to push for the region’s rail plans.

David Cole, commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said that the state had shovel-ready projects that fit the federal guidelines, including a proposal to extend the Downeaster, which runs from Boston to Portland, north to Brunswick.

“The Brunswick project is ready to go. We’re not complacent. It’s not a slam dunk, but we should have a decent shot at funding,’’ he said.

The New England plan identifies dozens of other projects, but singles out six as top priorities: raising speeds and running more trains between Springfield and New Haven, where the state of Connecticut hopes to introduce commuter rail; raising speeds and expanding the number of trains on the Downeaster; inaugurating passenger rail between Boston and Concord, N.H.; increasing capacity on the Northeast Corridor in Rhode Island; and improving service to the east and west sides of Vermont. The Vermont plan would return passenger trains to Northampton, Mass., after an absence of several decades.

Several of the proposals are intended to establish connections between train lines and airports in Providence, Hartford, and Manchester, which the federal guidelines say is a plus in deciding grant awards.

New England officials said that even if they don’t win funding this time, the legwork they are doing now could pay dividends later.

The Obama administration has promised that the $8 billion in the stimulus is just a “down payment’’ on a national high-speed rail network.

Congress is considering $4 billion more for high-speed rail in next year’s budget - four times as much as the administration requested - and a draft of long-term federal transportation legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill includes $50 billion more for high-speed rail.

Michael Lewis, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, said he was confident that more high-speed rail money would be provided.

“I don’t think this is the end,’’ he said. “Our investment in intercity rail is going to be a long-term commitment. The intercity highway system was built over 40 years.’’

“It’s going to be heavy competition,’’ Cole said. “But what we don’t get this round, we’ll continue to pursue.’’