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Washington state receives high-speed rail money

After a long wait, promised federal money is on the way. And considerably more could be coming if another Republican governor rejects federal help.

Washington state has finally been guaranteed $590 million in federal high-speed rail (HSR) funding, which red tape in the other Washington had been holding up for more than a year, according to a press release from the State Department of Transportation's Rail and Marine Office.

The finalized agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will give the Evergreen State its share of $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus awards for HSR, President Barack Obama's signature transportation initiative. Announced in January 2010, the money will underwrite track major and minor improvements in Amtrak's Pacific Northwest corridor and allow for the launch of two new daily round-trips between Seattle and Portland.

Following the award announcements, the long wait ensued as the FRA pored over every jot and tittle of the requisite documentation before writing checks to Washington and other recipient states.  Program advocates grew nervous as Republican fiscal hawks in Congress, empowered by last November's electoral victories, considered recouping the promised, but not yet disbursed funds.

State Rail and Marine Office director Scott Witt said Saturday that the first target for the money would likely be “corridor hardening” — a general upgrading of the track infrastructure to bring it into “a state of good repair for passenger rail.”  Larger-scale projects will include two major bypasses to speed traffic, and construction of a third main track in the Kelso area. Scott felt Washingtonians could expect the additional Seattle-Portland trains in three to four years.

Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, the state's passenger rail advocacy group, said that getting the promised funding out of the federal pockets had been “the single most important rail advocacy activity I’ve attended to in the last 13 months.”

In addition to the $590 million, Washington's HSR program has been awarded $31 million in a second round of federal awards and $161.5 million from federal funds refused by Ohio and Wisconsin, whose recently elected Republican governors adamantly oppose passenger-rail development. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, may soon join the list, returning $2.4 billion to the FRA.

Washington, among other states, has said it would be happy to accept part of this latest windfall, too. Referring to her Florida counterpart, Gov. Chris Gregoire was recently quoted as saying, “I want to give him a big kiss.” A slice of the Florida pie could ultimately put hundreds of millions more into development of the nearly 300 miles of corridor within the Evergreen state, as well as stations and trainsets for the service.

“Unlike some other states,” Flem said, “Washington has strong support from Republicans as well as Democrats for having passenger trains as part of a modally balanced transportation system.”

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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