Midwest competing with California for high-speed rail funds

Hoping Florida's loss will be their gain, Illinois and neighboring states have applied for some of the $2.43 billion in federal high-speed rail funding that became available after Florida Gov. Rick Scott scuttled plans for fast trains.

That puts them in direct competition with California, which has set its sights on the same funds. The federal government recently announced that states could apply for the high-speed and intercity passenger rail funding that Florida returned.

"California's application seeks funding for projects that will be the building blocks for a statewide network of rail lines linking high-speed and intercity rail lines to regional rail lines," California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a recent letter introducing the state's application. "The projects will provide the foundation for a transportation system that will improve mobility, help the environment, reduce energy dependency and put Californians to work."

The money would enable California to extend an initial Central Valley leg of the proposed 800-mile system. California already has received some of the largest federal grants in the nation under the Obama administration's push to develop a bullet train network similar to those in Europe and the Far East.

Work is slated to begin next year on a $5.5-billion section of rail, viaducts and stations from Fresno to the outskirts of Bakersfield.

If the Midwestern states obtain some of the $2.4 billion that Florida relinquished, the money will be used to buy new trains, accelerate plans to build track and signals for 110-mph passenger service and install railroad crossing upgrades on the Amtrak route between Chicago and St. Louis on the Union Pacific Railroad line, officials said.

A joint application totaling $806.8 million for new trains was submitted by Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin. Illinois would receive $262.8 million, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

This year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker canceled plans to extend Amtrak service from Milwaukee to Madison, resulting in the forfeiture of an $800-million grant for high-speed rail from the Federal Railroad Administration. But Walker now says he wants to compete for funding to improve service on the existing Amtrak Hiawatha route between Chicago and Milwaukee.

Illinois, meanwhile, is seeking $186.4 million in federal funds for additional track, rail sidings, signaling and crossing upgrades on the Chicago-to-St. Louis route and $800,000 in federal funds to conduct planning for a station in East St. Louis.

Competition for the federal money is fierce among 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Grants will be awarded to projects that can deliver benefits quickly, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

Hilkevitch writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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