Florida, others fighting for rail grants

Florida lawmakers invested in commuter rail last week, believing the support would help the state win a slice of federal stimulus money set aside for rail projects. But the competition is stiff.

Eight Midwestern states — including Illinois, home to President Barack Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — are bidding for the same federal rail money. California alone is seeking $4.7 billion for a bullet train from Sacramento to San Diego.

In all, nearly 40 states and Washington, D.C., have sent in applications for rail money totaling nearly $60 billion — with only $8 billion to go around.

As LaHood put it this week, “applications have poured in from all corners of the country.”

Florida is seeking $2.5 billion to build a high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando and then to Miami. Despite the competition, the state seems likely to secure at least part of the money, transportation analysts and state officials say.

Sen. Bill Nelson, who said he has spoken to Obama about Florida’s bid for the money, said he is “optimistic.”

And analysts note that proposals in Congress promise billions of dollars more for high-speed rail projects even after the stimulus dollars are awarded, likely in January.

Obama proposed to spend $1 billion a year on a high-speed rail grant program in his 2010 budget. The Senate topped him at $1.2 billion — and the House approved $4 billion. The chambers are expected to compromise on $2.5 billion.

The federal interest in a nationwide high-speed rail network has touched off a feeding frenzy among interests vying for the money. A recent study by the Center for Public Integrity found the number of high-speed rail lobbyists had tripled from 2008.

Elected lobbyists

Florida, like other states, is using elected officials to make its case, with Gov. Charlie Crist, Sen. George LeMieux, Sen. Bill Nelson and the state’s House delegation appealing in person to LaHood. Crist wrote to LaHood Thursday, telling him the Legislature’s vote “resoundingly demonstrates Florida’s support for passenger rail transportation.”

Orlando Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee, acknowledged he’s spent a lot of time trying to influence LaHood, a one-time Republican member of the committee

“He said to me, ‘Mica, what do you want for Christmas?’ ’’ Mica recalled. “I told him high-speed rail, and he said, ‘We’re ready, we’re waiting on you; you guys have to finish the job.”

The state boosted its odds of landing stimulus dollars with the Legislature’s vote Tuesday, analysts said, but maybe not the full sum.

“Without it, they had very little chance,” said Yoav Hagler, an associate planner with America 2050, a national planning initiative monitoring the high-speed rail application process. “With that vote, it vaults them right into the mix, maybe up toward the top of the list.”

The federal Department of Transportation is evaluating the applications which will be judged on a number of factors including whether they provide long-term public benefit, quick results, economic stimulus — and commitment from the state and host railroads.

California is at the top of the list, Hagler said. Voters there in 2008 agreed to borrow $10 billion to launch what the state says is a train that can travel up to 200 mph. Other states or regions that are well positioned include the Northeast, the Midwest with a potential Chicago-to-St. Louis link, and proposals to connect North Carolina and the Washington, D.C., area.

With so many states seeking money, critics of the administration’s rail plans have cautioned against spreading the money too thin. Hagler said he expects the administration will look for projects that can be done rapidly and can demonstrate results. The money is part of the federal government’s $787 billion stimulus bill which the administration pitched as a job creator.

“We do know that being able to start the project and put people to work will be a major criterion. I don’t see them funding a project that’s not going to break ground for another couple of years,” Hagler said. “This $8 billion is a down payment, the beginning of a long-term commitment to high-speed rail, and if they’ve got nothing to show for it, it will be harder and harder to justify additional appropriations.”

He noted that a number of the applications are in politically influential swing states, including Florida and Michigan.

“Some of the good projects happen to be in states that the administration would like to see some money go to,” he said. “They’re also some of the hardest hit states, economically. If it makes sense politically, economically and transportation-wise, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the money go there.”

Florida’s edge

Sen. Nelson contends that Florida has an edge because it has met a number of requirements, including environmental studies on the projected high-speed rail corridor between Tampa and Orlando. Nelson added that it was LaHood himself who pointed out that Florida’s proposal “was ready to go.”

Asked about the state Legislature’s action, LaHood joked at a Thursday Brookings Institution conference that he was “encouraged by the fact (state lawmakers) took my advice” and ponied up funding for commuter rail in the state.

Sen. LeMieux said LaHood told him plainly the state would be out of the running unless it took action. “He said to me, point blank, that Florida is not going to have a chance to get these dollars if we don’t show our commitment,” LeMieux said, “and that if we did, we would be very well positioned.”