LaHood: DOT Will Quickly Reassign Spurned State Rail Funds


NEW YORK -- The Obama administration will quickly redistribute high-speed rail funds spurned by new Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a gathering of transportation leaders here yesterday.

Speaking at a conference focused on U.S. rail development, LaHood said his staff was compiling a list of states that would be best served by additional funding and would "take quick action" to hand out cash "in a professional way" to states plowing forward on rail projects.

"What we're going to do is continue to take our cues from governors and state legislatures and rail enthusiasts, and if people need our help implementing high-speed rail, they'll get it," LaHood said.

Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker have both promised to cancel high-speed rail projects and return federal grants for the projects. Ohio received $400 million, and Wisconsin was given $810 million. Newly elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is also contemplating canceling work in his state, which could free up more than $2 billion.

LaHood said he had spoken to Kasich and Walker, but declined to divulge details of the conversations. He did say he understood the governors' concerns that their states might be burdened with operating or construction costs.

Lining up for additional federal rail funding are Illinois, California and New York. The Obama administration also has to contend with distributing Federal Transit Administration money returned by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who canceled a transit line to Manhattan (Greenwire, Nov. 15)

Many speakers at the rail conference were lobbying to get more federal cash for New York. The state received $28.5 million in the most recent round of federal rail funding for the "Empire Corridor," a rail line that would connect New York City to Niagara Falls, Albany and Buffalo.

"New York really symbolizes what can be the public policy of the future," said the state's outgoing governor, David Paterson (D). "I made it clear from the time I came into office that there will be high-speed rail in New York, and we have gotten high-speed happy around the state over the past few months."

Paterson's comments were echoed by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and state Senate President Malcolm Smith (D). Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said the freed-up money should go to New York, the Northeast corridor and California.

"Where some people see a dead end, others see opportunity," said Mineta, who served as Transportation secretary under President George W. Bush and chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 1993 to 1995, when he was a Democratic congressman from California.

Some would question whether New York is best positioned for the funds, since California, Florida and the Midwest have projects whose plans are further along and would connect more populated cities.

But Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association, which hosted the conference, said New York has the population density and demonstrated need to make rail successful.

"This is the center of rail use in America," Kunz said. "There's so many people in Manhattan that don't own cars so they'd all appreciate a great rail system."