Olympia still waiting for high-speed rail funds

The state had expected by Sept. 30 to receive its $590 million share of federal stimulus money for rail projects, but D.C. administrators say complex project contracts are taking longer to finalize.

Washington State's passenger rail program administrators continue to fidget as a long-awaited $590 million for high-speed rail languishes at the Federal Railroad Administration, the disbursing agency, in the other Washington. 

The sum, promised to Washington state under the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act back in January, had been expected by Sept. 30. In a June interview, spokesman Warren Flatau said the federal railroad agency was “committed” to paying out the sum by that date, along the rest of the $8 billion in stimulus funds for HSR projects from Seattle to Florida. 

Reached last week, Flatau didn't recall his earlier statement, saying, “This is a program in its infancy.” While alluding to his agency's “very ambitious timetable” and its intention to “set this up in record time,” he noted that “If the money were to go out precipitously, and couldn't be tracked, we could very well be criticized for that.“ 

According to the National Association of Railroad Passengers, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had disbursed approximately 11 percent of the $8 billion as of Oct. 1. Flatau did not dispute that figure.  

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which has run a parallel program for urban transit, completed its distribution of stimulus funds with a grant announced Sept. 29, but Flatau stressed that the FTA had an established grant program for passing on its slice of the stimulus pie. 

“Depending on the project or program, there are statements of work, there are financials, there are project management plans, there are agreements with either the host railroads, operators, or other entities,” he said, laying out the details that must be in place before the FRA spigots open. “Where applicable, there may be preliminary engineering work. There's environmental documentation. Some state rail offices are nonexistent or consist of just one person.”

The Washington Department of Transportation's Rail and Marine Office, which employs 11 people to manage its passenger rail program, has hired 17 additional workers specifically to handle the infusion of stimulus money. On Sept. 3 the office announced it had concluded a detailed memorandum of agreement with the BNSF Railway, which owns the passenger rail track in Washington's high-speed rail corridor.

That document set out terms under which most of the $590 million will be spent, but seems not to have lit any fires at the FRA. Flatau described it as a step forward, but not the “actual, executed contractual agreement” that the agency needs to see. 

“There's additional work to do,” Scott Witt, the state office's director, agreed, pointing to some of the same documentation Flatau mentioned. “Everyone — Amtrak, FRA, BNSF, the state — has to be involved in this process.” 

His comments carried a tinge of frustration over the paper shuffling's anemic pace. While he said he expected to receive the money “soon,” he added that the feds are “very worried about making everything legal and perfect. There are other federal programs that are not perfect, but there are checks and balances to compensate for any mistakes.” 

Flatau's reference to the FRA's “very ambitious timetable” may thus indicate nothing more than the semantic gulf that separates the nation's capital from the rest of the country. He would not commit the FRA to any deadline for mailing out the check, but did say his agency “is hopeful that the funds can be obligated sooner rather than later, meaning before the end of the year.” 

For some, the assurances are getting old. “Washington, unlike some other potential recipient states, is ready, willing and anxious to have these … investments,” said Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, the state's passenger rail advocacy group. “It is unfortunate that the FRA's past experience was simply in regulating railroads, not in promoting or funding their mode, as all the other federal transportation agencies have done.” 

The office of Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee for transportation, did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on the issue. Speaking for Washington's other senator, Maria Cantwell, John Diamond pointed to the thorniness of high-speed rail implementation issues as the source of the delay, saying, “It's our understanding that there are some complex contracts involved. We certainly hope that the money for the high-speed rail project will be flowing soon."

C.B. Hall is a freelance writer and has been following Pacific Northwest transportation issues since the 1990s. He can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.


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