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Rail stimulus funds to bypass Northeast

Environmental rules will keep states from pursuing $8 billion

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington - the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America’s only high-speed train, the Acela - have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration.

Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.

The projects, aimed at increasing speeds, range from bridge replacements in Connecticut to new overhead wires in New Jersey. They would cut the Acela’s travel time from Boston to New York by almost 30 minutes, and from Boston to Washington by a full hour.

When the first grants are announced in January, most of the money - and accompanying jobs - is expected to go to railroad projects in California and the Midwest, which currently have no high-speed trains but are trying to establish service for the first time.

“It’s frustrating,’’ said Yoav Hagler, a planner at the Regional Plan Association in New York, a nonprofit regional planning group in New York.

“We have a thriving intercity passenger market between our major cities and we need major investment in the corridor, so it’s a little strange to put that need in the same category as these new programs that are just applying and trying to build a market now,’’ he said.

Northeastern states are seeking some stimulus money for separate rail projects within their borders, such as the Massachusetts proposal to add commuter rail from Fall River and New Bedford to Boston. But travelers on the Acela will miss out on the promise of a faster train and will have to continue waiting for the day when the Northeast route matches the performance of European and Japanese lines.

The obstacle was a decision this year by the Federal Railroad Administration that, before any major upgrades could proceed, a comprehensive environmental review would have to be conducted on the entire 457-mile railroad.

Longstanding rules require such environmental studies - even if the heavily traveled corridor already carries high-speed trains, said Mark Yachmetz, associate administrator for railroad development at the FRA. Upgrading the Acela route to reduce travel times would take the program to “the next level, beyond what they have been planning for up to now,’’ and requiring more study, he said.

The FRA itself would be in charge of conducting the review. Although there is no timetable for completing it, similar studies in the past have taken years.

Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and a major backer of high-speed rail, said in a written statement that in future rounds of funding he would work to “ensure that any procedural obstacles are either removed or overcome to provide for an outcome where the corridor gets all the resources it needs.’’

“Ensuring that the Northeast Corridor can access federal funding available to other regions is critical to moving us towards a rail system that is up to par with the high-tech rail systems across the globe,’’ he said.

Amtrak has identified $11.8 billion in upgrades to reduce travel times on the corridor. In addition to better overhead electric supplies and stronger bridges, it includes straightening sections of curvy track and upgrading signaling systems. Without the review mandated by FRA, those plans will sit on the shelf for now, although states were able to apply for a few smaller grants under a separate part of the high-speed program.

The Obama administration, which has embraced high-speed rail as a flagship effort in the stimulus and boasts of Vice President Joe Biden’s long history as an Amtrak commuter, has framed the $8 billion as only the first step in the creation of a nationwide network.

Congress voted recently to provide another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail next year, meaning states that miss out in January will have at least one more chance to apply. But it may be difficult to complete a full environmental review of the Northeast railroad corridor in time for that money, either. A spokesman for Amtrak, Cliff Black, said the last such review for the Corridor took about three years in the mid-1990s, and covered only the stretch between New Haven and Boston.

Kevin Brubaker, deputy director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, said state governments nationwide were surprised by the requirements, but that some were able to quickly complete reviews - a practical impossibility for the Northeast region. Its railroad corridor passes through eight states plus the District of Columbia and shares the tracks with seven commuter rail agencies, including the MBTA.

“People were caught short by the environmental requirements that FRA imposed,’’ said Brubaker, who is involved with the Midwest effort. Brubaker said that in the past, states seeking to upgrade existing rail routes, rather than building a new one, had been subjected to a lower standard of environmental review.

When the stimulus turned FRA almost overnight from a little-known regulator to the custodian of billions of dollars in stimulus money, he said, the agency adopted a conservative reading of federal law mandating environmental reviews.

“They were understaffed and ill-equipped and they have been cautious,’’ he said.

At the urging of lawmakers from the Northeast, Congress voted recently to give the railroad agency $50 million to help states plan for high-speed rail, which could include work on environmental reviews.

The bad news for the Northeast is expected to translate to a windfall for other parts of the country. In the past, critics of rail spending have argued that the Northeast corridor soaked up too much federal transportation funding; the Government Accountability Office estimated in March that since 1990, the corridor had received $3.1 billion - about 75 percent of all federal funds for high-speed rail related projects in that period.

Rob McCulloch, a transportation advocate for Environment America, said that ending that imbalance might have the effect of broadening the political constituency for rail, which would ultimately benefit the region.

But by the same token, he said, giving money to other regions inexperienced at big passenger rail projects could mean delays at putting people to work and getting results - ostensibly the purpose of the stimulus.

“It actually would probably go a lot further in the Northeast,’’ McCulloch said. “But the idea is to create a nationwide network sooner rather than later.’’