At a time when several newly elected Republican governors are turning their backs on President Barack Obama's ambitious plans to build a high-speed rail system, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the administration would press forward in a patchwork fashion if necessary — drawing on the support of other chief executives such as Gov. Martin O'Malley.
During a wide-ranging briefing Wednesday, Obama's transportation chief said he had spoken to O'Malley this week about the prospects for further federal spending on several big-ticket projects in Maryland, including the century-old Amtrak tunnel in Baltimore that is an impediment to high-speed rail operations in the Northeast Corridor.
"There's a high level of interest from him in high-speed rail," LaHood said.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, confirmed that O'Malley had talked with LaHood and urged continued funding for the replacement of the Amtrak tunnel as well as a proposed rail-truck freight facility serving the port of Baltimore and two transit projects — the proposed east-west light rail Red Line in the city and the Purple Line in suburban Washington.
The secretary's briefing came a day after Vice President Joe Biden outlined the Obama administration's plan to spend $53 billion over six years to push forward with a 25-year vision of connecting 80 percent of the nation's population with high-speed rail networks.
The Democratic administration made the announcement in the face of increasing opposition to Obama's rail plans in the wake of Republican gains in statehouses and in Congress in the November elections. Since the election, new GOP governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused federal funding of proposed rail projects in their states.
In some cases, the withdrawal of one state's support has affected its neighbors' plans. For instance, Wisconsin's new governor has dropped the state's support for the middle link of a proposed high-speed rail line between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago despite continuing support from Democratic governors in Minnesota and Illinois.
On Wednesday, LaHood said that doesn't necessarily mean that Minnesota and others in a similar position are out of luck. He said he expects a high-speed rail system will eventually be built in a manner that might at first look piecemeal, much as the Interstate Highway System was built. The former Illinois congressman, a Republican, said an early leg was criticized initially because it did little more than connect Peoria and Bloomington. The leg was later linked to Chicago and the rest of the nation, he said.
One of the prime candidates for high-speed rail development under the Obama plan has been the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. The Obama administration has allocated large sums for corridor-related projects, such as planning an Amtrak project in Baltimore, but has been criticized by some Republicans who contend that the Amtrak line has been given short shrift as the Transportation Department has promoted new passenger rail projects in other regions.
LaHood denied that the administration was ignoring the Northeast Corridor and proclaimed support for Amtrak that was all but absent under President George W. Bush.
"We have a tremendous partnership with Amtrak. On my watch we have never turned a blind eye toward Amtrak," LaHood said.
But LaHood said that when governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John R. Kasich have refused federal funds, the money has been redirected into such states as California, Florida and Illinois rather than the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak, which owns most of the Northeast Corridor's rail infrastructure, faces a potentially enormous investment in order to enable its trains to run at the speeds for which they are designed if the tracks were in better repair. One of the slowest spots is the B&P Tunnel south of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, which Maryland wants to replace. The state received $60 million in stimulus money to plan the project, and Henson said the governor was lobbying LaHood for further support.
LaHood touted changes the Obama administration has made to streamline the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts process — to which Maryland is looking for 50 percent financing of three projects — the proposed Red and Purple lines and another transit line in northern Montgomery County.
"It doesn't take the 12 years anymore," LaHood said. "We can get a new start going pretty quickly."
LaHood urged Congress to pass a new, six-year federal transportation spending authorization bill but sidestepped the thorny issue of how to pay for it.
The secretary reaffirmed Obama's opposition to an increase in the federal gas tax, but turned aside questions about alternatives the administration would support.
"We're going to work with Congress to find the revenue," he said.