Obligate Funding Now To Protect High-Speed Rail Projects, says Sen. Schumer

>>Following the House vote to strip all un-obligated high-speed rail funding, Sen. Chuck Schumer urges stakeholders to reach agreement on rail projects in New York State in order to protect project funding now.

schumer_300.jpegYesterday, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) released a letter urging Amtrak, the New York State DOT, freight railroad CSX, and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to work out the final details of an agreement on rail projects in the State of New York.

Schumer's letter reveals an eagerness shared by many politicians to protect grants awarded to states by the federal high-speed rail program. As we reported in July, the House approved an Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that includes a provision, introduced by Republicans, to strip states of all awarded high-speed rail grants that have not yet been obligated. If the provision is approved by the Senate, over $1 billion in un-obligated projects would effectively be cancelled.

The Challenge of Obligating Funds

The hold up is that the FRA, which administers the federal high-speed rail program, cannot obligate New York's funding until agreements can be worked out among all major stakeholders, including CSX, the freight railroad that owns the right-of-way that this high-speed rail project affects. Schumer's call for action comes just days after the FRA obligated $336 million in grants for new trains for Illinois, California, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri, a major victory for those states and the FRA, who can rest assured that their funding is now safe from rescission.

If the House has its way, New York State would lose major investments in its passenger rail infrastructure. Sen. Schumer's letter targets the $240 million in grants for the Empire Corridor, which runs from New York City to Albany and Buffalo. These grants would fund improvements that will dramatically increase the speed of trains on the corridor and make major advancements in service reliability. New York also has other un-obligated funding, including a $295 grant million for the replacement of Harold Interlocking in Queens, NY, on the NEC, but Schumer's letter focuses on the Empire Corridor.

So far, obligating the funds has been held up because of a disagreement about how fast passenger trains will move on the corridor. While Amtrak and state planners have been preparing for 110 mph operations, the track's owner CSX has called for 90 mph. In April 2011, Michael Ward, CEO of CSX, argued that the private freight railroad had little to gain from improved passenger operations on the corridor and that speeds over 90 mph would disrupt and delay his freight trains. State advocates are split on the issue. Back in June, Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY-D) urged CSX to accept 110 mph operations, after the Empire State Passenger Association, a state-wide rail advocacy group, released a statement endorsing CSX's call for 90 mph operations in a bid to speed up an agreement among all parties.


Cause for Worry?

Schumer's letter clearly signals that he is worried because he understands that the Senate cannot guarantee the protection of rail projects funded by the federal high-speed rail program. Back in July when the House voted on the bill that would rescind the funds, some advocates expressed certainty that the Senate would block the rescission. In his letter, Schumer promises to fight the provision, but admits that the best way to protect these grants is by reaching an agreement that will enable the FRA to obligate funding as soon as possible:

"I will work to keep this provision from being included in the final appropriations bill, and will fight against any other efforts to rescind money awarded to New York. However, the best way to prevent high speed rail funding from the threat of rescission is to finalize the necessary agreements so that the money can be obligated and put to its intended use, and I strongly urge you to do just that."

Schumer's words ring particularly true following the lessons of the recent debt ceiling debacle. The House and Senate are bound to continue fierce negotiations on spending and nothing - not even grants already awarded - can be guaranteed by either party.

A decision on FY 2012 appropriations and this bill by the Senate is likely to come in September. Throughout the summer, the FRA has been working hard with the states to get funds obligated and will continue this effort. As mentioned above, the FRA released $336 million to states in the California and the Midwest for new trains. The Northeast has also seen progress - in early July, Massachusetts secured $72 million for the line from Massachusetts to Vermont. Later that month, Pennsylvania secured $24 million for the Keystone Corridor from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. Finally, Yesterday, NYS got a small piece of good news when the FRA transferred about $6 million to the state for small improvements on the Empire Corridor and Adirondack Corridor, which runs from Albany to Montreal.

Of all the rail corridors in the Northeast, however, the NEC remains the most vulnerable. Since its projects were not awarded until May 2011, there has been little time to work out the agreements necessary to secure authorization. In total, the NEC has nearly $1 billion in awarded funding that has yet to be obligated. Critical projects that are vulnerable to cancellation include:
- Amtrak ($449 million): Upgrades to 24 miles of track and electrical equipment in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and track improvements at the entrance to NY Penn Station.
- New York ($295 million): Construction to replace Harold Interlocking in Queens, NY, where frequent conflicts create delays for over 300,000 daily Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak riders
- New York ($240 million): Construction of signal, track, and station improvements to reduce travel time and increase service on the Empire Corridor.
- Pennsylvania ($66 million): Design and construction of improvements on the Keystone Corridor - separate from the earlier grant already obligated.
- Connecticut ($30 million): Construction of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Rail Project to expand intercity service and introduce commuter rail service.
- Maryland ($29 million): Design and preliminary engineering for the replacement of the Susquehanna Bridge, a century-old span carrying the NEC from Baltimore to Washington, DC.
- Rhode Island ($22 million): Construction of a third track on NEC at Kingston station to reduce delays on Acela Express service and accommodate a future commuter rail extension.

Schumer's public call to secure NY's funding is a major signal that the Senate cannot guarantee high-speed rail funding. If we wish to protect these critical improvements on the NEC and the larger Northeast, the FRA, the states, and the freights must reach agreements and secure obligations now.

Chuck Schumer. Flickr.
Map of Empire Corridor. Amtrak.

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