Md. Amtrak passengers to see speed, reliability upgrades

Amtrak passengers in Maryland and other Eastern states emerged as some of the biggest beneficiaries of Florida's decision to turn down more than $2 billion in federal high-speed rail funds, as the Obama administration redirected nearly $800 million of that money into Northeast Corridor infrastructure.

The windfall includes $22 million sought by Maryland for planning and engineering of a replacement for the century-old bridge that carries Amtrak and MARC trains over the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Monday that about 40 percent of the $2.02 billion, made available by Gov. Rick Scott's decision to pull the plug on a new rail line between Tampa and Orlando, would go to projects intended to increase the speed and reliability of Amtrak service.

The money became available after Scott decided to scrap the high-speed rail project, which had been supported by previous Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, shortly after Scott took office in January. The Obama administration then decided to open the door to other states and Amtrak to apply for the money.

Not surprisingly, the administration found no shortage of applicants. Maryland was one of the most enthusiastic bidders, putting in requests for projects adding up to $450 million.

In addition to the money Maryland will receive, the Federal Railroad Administration announced it would direct $450 million to Amtrak itself for improvements to the power, signal and track systems in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak said that money would be used to improve a heavily used section of the corridor between Morrisville, Pa., and New Brunswick, N.J., as well as to overhaul track switches at New York's Penn Station.

Amtrak said the track, signal and power line improvements will let it increase the maximum speed of its Acela trains along the 24-mile segment of the corridor from Morrisville, across the Delaware River from Trenton, N.J., to New Brunswick, from 135 mph to 160 mph. The railroad said the project is part of a plan to add six New York-Washington Acela round-trip trains to its schedule by 2018 and 15 by 2022.

In addition to Maryland, Rhode Island and New York were awarded money for improvements to the corridor. New York was allocated $295 million for a track project to alleviate delays in Manhattan, while Rhode Island will receive $28 million for track and station improvements.

The infusion of cash for improvements to the Northeast Corridor drew praise from a group that advocates for rail passengers.

"We are pleased with the speed and intelligence shown by the Federal Railroad Administration in redirecting Florida's money," said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Rail Passengers. "Americans should be concerned, however, that this $2 billion in high-speed rail funds represents the last money appropriated for this popular, oversubscribed program."

While Maryland received only a fraction of what it requested, Gov. Martin O'Malley and other elected officials welcomed the decision to allocate $795 million to the Northeast Corridor to increase the speed of travel on the line from Washington to Boston.

The money Maryland received will finance the first phase of the replacement of the 105-year-old, two-track Susquehanna bridge with a wider span.

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, gave a preliminary estimate that the full entire replacement project will cost more than $800 million. He said the new bridge would add one or two tracks to the existing capacity.

Cahalan said the $22 million grant will cover about half the cost of preliminary engineering and environmental studies for the bridge. He said the studies are expected to create 104 direct jobs in Maryland over the next three years.

The bridge is owned by Amtrak, but Maryland submitted the grant application in partnership with the railroad, Cahalan said. The bridge carries more than 100 Amtrak, MARC and freight trains over the river each day.

The Susquehanna project was the only one of three Amtrak bridge projects in Maryland to make the cut. The state also sought money to start the process of replacing the similarly aged bridges crossing the Bush and Gunpowder rivers. The state also asked for money toward construction of a new station at BWI Marshall Airport and replacement of the B&P Tunnel leading into Baltimore's Penn Station.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said the state welcomes the money to begin the Susquehanna bridge project but understands that "there is more work to be done."

"Obtaining the large amounts of funding needed for major projects is a process," she said. "We will continue to be aggressive in our pursuit of additional federal dollars for rail priorities that we believe will improve service here in Maryland and along the Northeast Corridor."

Michelle Whelley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said the announcement was "a bit of a disappointment" even though many Marylanders will benefit from improvements to the Northeast Corridor.

"I just wish we were able to move the ball a little further along in terms of Maryland's own needs," she said.

Cahalan acknowledged that Amtrak would not realize the full benefit of a new Susquehanna bridge until the Bush and Gunpowder spans were built.

Still, he said the Susquehanna project would speed traffic through that part of Maryland. "You have one less bottleneck," he said.

Other projects receiving large grants from the money Florida spurned were a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco — intended to reach speeds up to 220 mph — and improvements to the existing corridors between Chicago and St. Louis, and Chicago and Detroit.

In 2009, President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to allocate $10 billion for high-speed rail projects as part of his economic stimulus program. Florida was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the original allocation before Scott took office and canceled the project, expressing concerns that Florida taxpayers could end up shouldering the burden of any cost overruns.

With the election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives last year, it appears unlikely that Congress will be as generous with money for high-speed rail over the next several years.


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