Now that other states have grabbed most of the federal stimulus money for high-speed rail systems, does Connecticut still have a chance of building a New Haven-to-Springfield line?
Connecticut congressional leaders and policy planners say the vision of 110 mph trains running from Massachusetts to the shoreline is very much alive.
But, at least privately, they admit New England suffered a setback Thursday when President Barack Obama handed out billions in Federal Railroad Administration grants but gave Connecticut just $40 million. Without the kind of blockbuster stimulus windfall it was hoping for, Connecticut will have to cobble together funding from annual federal appropriations and kick in more of its own money, too.
"Our partners are Massachusetts, Amtrak, the FRA ... we can't do it without them," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Friday. "We need their help."
Rell and other politicians worked to put a cheerful spin on the award.
"Forty million is a lot of money," she said. "And there's another $2.5 billion out there. We're going to dot every 'i' and cross every 't' and be sure we apply everywhere it's possible."
The FRA will award $2.5 billion for high-speed trains later this year, and Obama has pledged at least another $4 billion over the next four years. U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut project's most influential advocate, said the state must present a powerful case to land some of that money.
"Our hope is that we'll be in a very strong competitive position," Dodd said.
Pressed to explain why the state got just $40 million in the first round, Dodd conceded that Connecticut wasn't in a strong position.
"I have to have a state that's ready to receive the money," he said Friday. "Things went slow at the state level."
What Went WrongOver the past year, politicians from both parties took turns proclaiming how high-speed Amtrak trains — and slower-speed but frequent commuter trains — would revive Connecticut's economy, cut highway congestion, reduce pollution and ease the demand for foreign oil.
When nationwide competition for the $8 billion began last spring, Connecticut leaders were confident. They'd been talking for years about starting state-funded commuter service from the Elm City to Springfield, and figured the plan could be transformed quickly into a proposal for high-speed trains.
The Department of Transportation studied exactly what it would take to transform Amtrak's lightly used Springfield line. The first job would be restoring a second set of tracks; more than 15 years ago, Amtrak ripped up those tracks to save maintenance costs. Other work would include redesigning grade crossings, rebuilding the viaduct at Union Station, repairing the bridge over the Connecticut River in Enfield, constructing more stations and parking, and — the biggest cost — installing power lines over both tracks of the entire 62-mile route.
The DOT projected costs at $800 million and told the FRA it probably would ask for about $500 million of that. When it filed formal requests, though, the DOT applied for just $41 million. At the time, a senior DOT official said the FRA had tightened its rules and wanted more environmental and engineering work than Connecticut could accomplish in time.
Last week, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart offered this explanation: "We didn't ask for more because we have tried to keep things realistic and doable. We were not going to apply for, say, $500 million, because that's not realistic today.
"Our expectation is still that we will have some kind of meaningful commuter and intercity service by 2015 in this corridor; high-speed service will follow," Everhart said by e-mail. "It is an incremental, realistic plan, and it is not a change of plans or goals; we have said all along that we have to do the commuter service before we can do high-speed service."
But the DOT didn't explain how North Carolina, Washington, Ohio, Illinois, Florida and California and Wisconsin were able to apply for — and get — many times more money than Connecticut did.
Without directly criticizing the DOT, federal and state officials said Connecticut didn't work fast enough on environmental studies.
"The sense of urgency to get that work done in late summer was not there," said a congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said Thursday, "The state needs to be better coordinated and prepared to take advantage of future opportunities," and Dodd on Friday agreed Connecticut must get more aggressive before the next round of funding comes up.
Getting Back On TrackAt the same time, rail advocates say, Connecticut was hampered by disorganization throughout New England. Massachusetts never applied for money to upgrade the Springfield-to- Boston tracks, which would have offered a seamless connection from New York through New Haven and Springfield to Boston. New Hampshire lawmakers didn't seek funding for another essential link from Boston to Montreal.
The FRA was looking for big-impact projects to connect entire regions; New England's pitch fell far short, and the Northeast got the smallest share of the $8 billion. Before the next round of funding, New England must reorganize and pull governors, state legislatures, the freight railroad and the public into the campaign, said James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative, a rail advocacy organization.
"All the New England states must speak with one voice and must work with Canada," RePass said.
U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, enthusiastically predicted that a network of high-speed lines connecting Albany, Montreal, New York and Boston would revitalize central Connecticut by making it a modern transit hub. State officials know they'll need Oberstar's support if they're to have a shot at the next federal funding. They admit that losing two powerful allies — the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and Dodd, who leaves office after this term — will make New England's job tougher. Some are already looking for more help from Larson, a friend of Oberstar's and a transit supporter.
"I think Rep. Larson will pick up the mantle from Sen. Dodd," said state Rep. David McCluskey, D- West Hartford, one of the top transit proponents in the General Assembly. "John Larson is a leader."
State lawmakers and Rell will also face pressure to come up with more state money. Rell and House Speaker Chris Donovan, D- Meriden, said Friday they're deeply committed to the project, but didn't say where funding would come from. Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D- Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the state transportation committee, might end up with a pivotal role in finding that answer: He has been an outspoken proponent of highway tolls to pay for infrastructure work. Tolls or a gas-tax increase are the most obvious ways to raise money.
"The New Haven-Hartford-Springfield high-speed rail line along the I-91 corridor is the key to our efforts to get the entire region moving," Guerrera said last week. "In order to get our economy out of the breakdown lane we need to ease the gridlock on our highways and expand mass transit options high-speed rail will do just that."