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High-speed rail funds are still hung up, as Congress tightens its belt

Advocates of the rail program are still waiting for promised federal funds, and they worry that a newly conservative Congress will cut the payouts.

Washington state's quest for more than a half-billion dollars of federal high-speed rail (HSR) funding has become a race against time, as advocates seek to get the money through the federal pipeline before Republicans in the new Congress try to rescind the funding in the name of deficit reduction. 

Since last January, in two rounds of awards, the feds have promised Olympia $782 million for HSR, but nary a penny has made it through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency charged with dotting all the legalistic i's before “obligating” the money — paying it out — to the recipient states. 

“The whole game of the Tea Party types is to cut everything,” said Ray Chambers, senior transportation fellow with Seattle's pro-rail Cascadia Center for Regional Development, who works primarily in D.C. “I hope the hell the FRA can find a way to obligate that money as soon as possible.” 

While President Barack Obama and the Democrats who control the Senate support HSR, last month's tax-cut compromise suggests that the president may accept quid pro quos with Republicans sharpening their fiscal knives.  

“God knows what's going to happen,” Chambers said. 

The director of the State Rail and Marine Office, Scott Witt, said the state and the BNSF Railway, which owns Washington's high-speed rail corridor, are in the final stages of negotiating an agreement for the program's implementation. But he said that agreement will then have to get FRA's imprimatur. Asked how long that might take, he said, “Your guess is as good as mine.” 

FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said that just over half the first round of grants have been dispersed, but none of the later-round awards have gotten out the door. The agency is aiming to get all the first-round grants out “by the middle of the year if not sooner,” he said, but he offered no more precise timeline for Washington's payout. 

A spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington state program's most powerful congressional backer, says she “wants this job-creating investment to be created as soon as possible, and has made that clear to all the parties involved.”

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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