Approval of high speed rail funding not immediate
Published 12/03/2009 - 8:33 p.m. CDT

Brian Weiler, Missouri Department of Transportation multi-modal director, said he doesn’t expect to hear how his state’s applications fare until mid-January.

The Federal Railroad Administration has received nearly 280 applications with requests of $102 billion of economic stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The original proposal included $8 billion for high-speed rail grants. States in the Midwest region submitted requests for $13 billion alone. Originally, the U.S. Department of Transportation had expected to begin announcing awards earlier.

The FRA is still wading through the grant requests and there’s no answer on how the money will be awarded, said FRA spokesman Rob Kulat said.

“As this is a brand new program, we had no preconceived notion of how many applications we would receive,” Kulat said. “However, we were expecting applications from the states in the designated high-speed rail corridors.”

Grant requests have ranged from the exotic – California and Florida have requested grants to start setting up sleek versions of Japanese or French bullet trains. Other states such as Missouri and Kansas have been more modest – money to improve tracks or trains to increase speeds but which are still under 100 miles an hour.

The applications are being evaluated because of their merit, not whether they’re futuristic or improvements on existing technology, Kulat said.

“The evaluation is technology-neutral; one type of system does not have an advantage over another,” he said.

However the number of applications shows that the states and Americans are ready to reconsider rail travel, he said.

“It says there is great demand in these states,” Kulat said. “Even when you look at the growth in Amtrak ridership, it shows the public is willing to travel by rail.”

"The response has been tremendous and shows that the country is ready for high-speed rail," said Ray LaHood, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. "It's time to look beyond our highways and invest in public transportation services like rail, which will enhance regional mobility and reduce our carbon footprint."

Kansas has submitted three applications for slightly more than $17 million, two to make improvements on tracks that serve the Southwest Chief or the tracks that could serve the proposed Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Newton, Kansas, where passengers could connect with the Southwest Chief. The other grant would seek money for a study on the feasibility of state subsidies for passenger service between Oklahoma City and Kansas City.

Missouri seeks $139 million for improvements to the Union Pacific lines between Kansas City and St. Louis that Amtrak trains use, plus another $50 million as part of a consortium of upper Midwest states seeking new train locomotives and train sets.

Missouri has already started work on some of the improvements, Weiler said.

Indeed, there will be ribbon-cutting ceremony next Tuesday for a passing siding near California, Mo., he said. The siding allows oncoming trains to pass each other without creating a bottleneck.

“The nice thing is we have had it in operation before the Thanksgiving travel season,” Weiler said. “All four of the trains, all of the week over Thanksgiving, were 100 percent on time.”

Beyond the grant applications, MoDOT has continued to look at improving passenger rail service, he said.

MoDOT’s Rod Massman has been named to a national committee of state and federal officials who are helping Amtrak decide on new locomotives and passenger rail equipment, Weiler said.

“We’re going to be actively involved in that,” he said.