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Published: Thursday, 6/18/2009

Rail plan for Midwest leads federal stimulus money list


CHICAGO - High-speed rail plans in the Midwest and California appear to be front-runners in the race for $8 billion in stimulus cash based on federal criteria released yesterday.

The criteria favor projects with established revenue sources and multistate cooperation.

Eight Midwest states - including Ohio and Michigan - have cooperated closely to promote a network, with Chicago as its hub, that would join 12 metropolitan areas within 400 miles.

California voters last November approved nearly $10 billion in state bonds that could be combined with federal money to build 800 miles of high-speed track.

Karen Rae, deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, stopped short of naming favorites, but she praised Midwestern states for their cooperation and pointed to California's bond issue.

"That's very important. California by having the bond has a step up," said Ms. Rae.

The administration's 68 pages of often technical rules also seek projects that would reduce regional highway and airport congestion and create jobs, especially among lower income Americans.

Lollygagging states will have to move fast to try to grab a share of the funds, with the federal guidelines setting a July 10 deadline for preapplications and an Aug. 24 deadline for most final applications.

The railroad administration said it intends to release the first round of grants by mid-September.

Any region can present a long-range plan, but the railroad administration has highlighted 10 major corridors that cover lines in Texas, California, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Gulf Coast, the Southeast, northern New England, Pennsylvania, and New York.

The guidelines released yesterday call for detailed cost-benefit analyses to be submitted with applications, but Randal O'Toole, of the free-market oriented Cato Institute in Washington said deadlines so close to one another will make it impossible to scrutinize the submissions.

"July and August deadlines is rushing it," Mr. O'Toole said. "It's hard for me to imagine federal authorities are going to take these analyses seriously. There's no time for that."

President Obama laid out plans in April for high-speed rail that he said would help dramatically change the way Americans travel.

Even advocates concede the $8 billion isn't nearly enough for a wholesale change in passenger-train service, something that would require hundreds of billions more. But backers still hope the stimulus money, as well as $1 billion a year for five years proposed for high-speed rail in the 2010 federal budget, will lead to more funding later.

Improvements to tracks and equipment on many existing routes could enable Amtrak trains to reach top speeds of 110 mph.

The only U.S. service currently meeting the railroad administration's 110 mph threshold to qualify as a true high-speed train is Amtrak's Acela Express route between Boston and Washington.

The Midwest project foresees upgrades of three existing routes: Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-Madison, Wis., via Milwaukee; and Chicago-Pontiac, Mich., through Detroit. Later, they would upgrade a St. Louis-Kansas City, Mo., route.

The governors of the eight Midwest states - Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin - wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in April appealing for money for the region, one of the hardest hit by the recession.

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