>> The FRA has obligated $24 million for the Keystone Corridor, but up to $1.2 billion of rail projects in the Northeast remain threatened by rescission.
As we reported earlier, last Friday the House voted to rescind up to $2 billion in high-speed rail grants, as an amendment included in its FY 2012 Energy & Water Bill. If approved by the Senate, the provision would cancel all projects for which grants have been awarded, but not yet obligated by Congress. Up to $1.2 billion worth of projects in the Northeast fall into this category.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, however, has just secured a small piece of that pie, protecting it from the threat of rescission.
Yesterday afternoon, the FRA announced the obligation of $24.3 million in funding to Pennsylvania for improvements on the Keystone Corridor. For those not familiar, the Keystone Corridor spans 104 miles between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Amtrak, which owns the line, runs the Keystone Service along the Keystone Corridor and the NEC to New York Penn Station. The line is currently Amtrak's fourth most heavily traveled route in the country.
The $24.3 million grant will fund the elimination of the three last, remaining at-grade crossings on the line. Currently, trains must bisect public roads at three locations, which forces trains to reduce speed and delays local traffic. The new, separated crossings will increase travel speed and reduce the potential for accidents. The grant will also fund preliminary work on the replacement of a crucial, but functionally obsolete interlocking near Harrisburg. These improvements are part of a larger set of planned projects that together will eventually raise speeds on the Keystone Corridor from 110 mph to 125 mph.
The Power of Incremental Improvements
These projects, while seemingly modest, will have a major impact on the Keystone Corridor. In the past, incremental increases in speed and service have resulted in big ridership gains for the Keystone service. In 2006, a series of investments enabled trains to increase speeds from 90 to 110 mph and expand service from 11 to 14 round trips per day. These investments have paid off. Since then, ridership has grown by more than 37% to around 1.2 million annual riders and state subsidies to operate the line have decreased by 20% between 2004 and 2009.
While yesterday's announcement is good news, not all of Pennsylvania's rail projects are out of the woods just yet. Besides this $24.3 million grant, the state is still waiting on the obligation of a $40 million grant awarded in May 2011 that would complete construction on a key interlocking in order to achieve higher speed service. If the House provision to rescind unobligated funding are allowed to stand, this grant and the entire $1.2 billion in grants for the Northeast would be lost altogether.
The protection of these unobligated funds is not assured. The outcome will depend on the negotiations between the House and Senate on a final Energy & Water bill. While some transportation advocates have expressed confidence that the Senate will include rail funding in their version of the bill, there is still a chance that political maneuvering or partisan compromises could result in the Senate either including a rescission itself or agreeing to one in negotiations with the House.
As a result, the best way to protect these projects is for the FRA to authorize their funding now by hammering out operating agreements as quickly as possible, like they did with the Keystone Corridor. Or individuals and local leaders can continue to send letters to their Senators expressing strong support for high-speed rail and opposition to attempts to rescind funds that have already been awarded to rail projects. Visit StandUpForTrains.org and click the "Help Now" button to learn more about how you can help protect important rail projects in your state.
Map of Amtrak's Keystone Service: Amtrak.com
Map of Keystone Corridor and station stops: Federal Railroad Administration. Technical Monograph: Transportation Planning for the Philadelphia-Harrisburg "Keystone" Corridor, Volume 2.