Northeast States Ride Together For Rail Stimulus

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Once each day, a northbound train from New Haven, Conn., pulls into the station in Brattleboro, Vt. Passenger Anna Lehr Muser, a bespectacled college student, slept and read during a recent trip from Philadelphia. She wishes more service were available.

"Way more train lines going to lots more areas, so more people can use it," Muser said. "We need cheaper fares. It needs to be more accessible to more people. It needs to be a more viable means of transport."

Transportation officials in northeastern states are beginning to team up in the hope that working together will increase the chance of winning economic stimulus funding to upgrade high-speed rail service in the region. They say working together to get some of the $8 billion promised by the Obama administration makes sense, because it would tie communities together.

Environment advocates view trains as a form of "green" development. "They act as an important sort of counter-magnet to sprawl," said Tom Irwin of the Conservation Law Foundation. "Rail can be used as a very powerful tool to promote more compact, more vibrant, healthier communities."

Passenger trains would reduce carbon emissions from cars that cause global warming. More freight trains would take more trucks off the roads. New train stations spur economic development.

Just about every state in the Northeast is hoping to secure federal funding for rail. Vermont wants new service on the western side of the state, from Burlington to Rutland. New York wants funding for the trip from Albany to Buffalo. Maine wants to speed up passenger service south to Boston. Massachusetts will apply for funding to upgrade tracks in the western part of the state and to reinstate an old train depot.

Although each state has its own project, rail advocates are warning them not to fight one another. "That's a formula for ensuring that none of us get what we want, which is a system that ties us all together," said New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority Chairman Peter Burling.

Stephen Devine of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation wants funding to build another track in his state. "What I found out in this business — in transit and rail — it doesn't recognize state lines," he said. "It's one long corridor. What happens on one end of the corridor affects the other end of the corridor, so that's how we try to view this."

The new track would speed up the Northeast's high-speed service from Boston to Washington. And it would improve Rhode Island commuter service and freight trains. Rhode Island is talking with neighboring states about it, Devine said.

"What we don't have is a true, wide, regional vision of what projects should be top priority in terms of region-wide benefit," said the Conservation Law Foundation's Tom Irwin, who chairs the steering committee of the New England Regional Rail Coalition.

The Coalition of Northeast Governors, or CONEG, says it is working with states to identify which projects could strengthen passenger rail. CONEG is also talking with the Federal Railroad Administration.

"They do not want a bridge to nowhere," said CONEG's Ann Stubbs. "They do not want a station or a track work that does not lead to inter-city service that connects our communities."

The Federal Railroad Administration says it wants states to identify what they consider to be the best projects in their region. But it isn't only the Northeast that will be going after the rail money. Eight Midwestern states are collaborating on projects. California wants to build high-speed service from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The first round of applications are due in August. Those grants will be awarded by late September.

This program aired on June 9, 2009.


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