Federal, state officials review high speed rail using stimulus funds

As highway funding from the gas tax inevitably declines, revenue sources from high speed rail is being scrutinized. Obama pledged $8 billion in stimulus funds to the technology, of which Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont have received $160 million so far.

By , Associated Press

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    Passengers board an Amtrak Acela Express train at South Station in Boston, Massachusetts.
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Ambitious plans for a vastly upgraded rail system in New England and the Northeast could collide with severe money problems, transportation planners were told Friday.

Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., warned a group of about 50 representatives of federal, state and local agencies that the Interstate highway system built beginning in the 1950s relied in part on the gasoline tax for funding. That's no longer possible, he said.

"It's not that reliable a funding mechanism as we move away from fossil fuels," he said.

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All levels of government — federal, state and local — will have to come up with money, Olver said at the meeting called to review updated plans for a revamped rail system in the Northeast.

"This is not going to work unless we have a robust appropriations," said Olver, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "We're going to have to figure out what that funding will be."

Planners have no choice but to push forward, Olver said after the meeting.

"The alternative is, 'Oh, this cannot be done. We'll never have high-speed rail," he said.

The Obama administration has committed $8 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail nationally. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont have received $160 million so far, with more being sought.

Transportation planners are seeking to upgrade tracks from New York to New Haven, Conn., north through Connecticut to Springfield, into Vermont and eventually to Montreal.

Plans also call for upgraded east-west rail service in Massachusetts and connections between Boston and New Hampshire cities.

At least initially, trains will be faster — up to 80 mph or so — but will fall short of true high speed of more than 110 mph as transportation officials seek to increase train frequency to give passengers moving between cities an alternative to cars.

For example, plans in Massachusetts also call for an east-west connection between Springfield, Worcester and Boston to relieve highway traffic.

Federal transportation officials said plans are being pursued to buy freight rail rights of way.

Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said improvements in the freight system will be needed as the U.S. population rises and to reduce highway truck traffic.

He said federal transportation officials are proposing to buy access from freight rail companies with the message, "We need your right of way. We're willing to put our money where our mouth is."

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