Decision Next Week: The Re-Distribution of Florida HSR Grants

Transportation Nation has reported that the US DOT’s decision regarding the Florida HSR money is expected to come next week.

According to Kate Hinds, during a Conference Call this afternoon with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood:

[Transportation Nation] also asked the secretary when an announcement would be made about awarding the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail money that Florida rejected earlier this year. LaHood would only say “next week.”

There is strong competition for the $2.4B, which were made available after Florida’s Governor Rick Scott returned his state’s grants in February, arguing that the costs of the project outweighed potential benefits. In total, Twenty-six applicants (including 24 states, DC and Amtrak) requested just under $10B from the returned moneys – over four times the amount available.

Despite the wide support that the program is receiving at the state level, the $2.4B took a hit in the April budget compromise for the remainder of FY2011. According to Todd Zwilich for Transportation Nation, Congress took $400M out of the Florida pool (plus $2.5B in unspent grants), leaving only $2B to distribute to hungry state DOTs.

After weeks of waiting, the US DOT has already begun to award the funding.  The Chicago Tribune reported that Illinois received $186M in HSR funding to support faster operations (110mph) on a 21-mile section of track in Illinois, to support eventual 110mph service on the line from Chicago to St. Louis. According to reporter Jon Hilkevitch, the DOT notified congress this week that it has released $400M of the Florida money to new states. Beyond Illinois, it’s not clear which other states have won won funding.

The DOT’s decision could have an enormous impact on the future of the Gateway project. Amtrak has applied for $1.3B to begin the construction and design of HSR on the Northeast Corridor:

Amtrak’s large request is surpassed by that of California, which requested $2.4B to construct high-speed service on the line from Bakersfield to San Francisco. But large success in California seems unlikely, since it would dramatically tip the funding scales toward the west coast and California in particular. Already, California received $624M in grant money returned to the DOT by Wisconsin and Ohio. And in 2010, the state received approximately $3.3B for the statewide HSR initiative. Unless more states receive such high levels of investment, Obama will be unable to promote HSR as a national vision, a key component of his proposed surface transportation legislation.

Instead of California, a large commitment to  the northeast could encourage HSR’s longterm and national success by signaling that the Obama Administration is interested in placing HSR funds where are they are most wanted, most economically promising, and most critical for the US’s long term economic success.

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