LaHood, Biden Meet With Governors on High-Speed Rail

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Vice President Biden met at the White House this afternoon with officials from 20 states in contention for funding as part of the Obama administration's high-speed rail program.

midwest_rail_map_300x211.jpgThe high-speed Midwest Regional Rail Initiative's proposed reach. (Photo: Michigan Messenger)

"This is how the interstate highway system started, folks," Biden told the governors, according to the pool report filed by the White House press corps. "It wasn't like the Lord on the eighth day said -- boom! -- there's the interstate highway system."

The group included eight governors -- from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia and Missouri -- but not New York's David Paterson, who's taking some flak from a Democratic state legislator for his decision to focus on legislative priorities in Albany.

Applications are due this summer for the $8 billion in high-speed rail money that was added to the economic stimulus bill, and detailed guidance on that process is slated for release by month's end.

It's still unclear, though, how many projects are in line for a share of that pot, not to mention the passenger demand and matching-funds requirements that rail proposals would have to meet.

As Sarah pointed out in her Streetsblog Network post today, directing the money to the most high-demand areas remains a key concern for transportation planners.

Another unanswered question is whether Congress will sign on to the administration's pitch for $5 billion in annual high-speed rail funding over the next five years. LaHood is headed to the House Appropriations Committee tomorrow morning, where part of his job will be to sell that long-term rail investment to his former colleagues on the Hill.

Meanwhile, the most well-represented corridor at the meeting appears to be the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, which would link Chicago with St. Louis, the Detroit area, Wisconsin and the Twin Cities of Minnesota. In an April letter to LaHood, governors from that region estimated the cost of their high-speed rail corridor at $3.4 billion, using 3,000 miles of track that don't require negotiations over rights-of-way.

Midwestern senators are also working the phones to ensure that freight rail doesn't stand in the way of an expansion of high-speed passenger service. Will the Midwest initiative's political might -- both LaHood and the president are Illinoisans -- help vault it ahead of the competition?