Rail Plan on Track Despite Grant Loss

By Charis Anderson
NEW BEDFORD — South Coast Rail came up short in its bid for $1.9 billion in federal stimulus money, but the loss will not affect the future of the project, officials said.
“The project wasn’t dependent on the money; we weren’t counting on it,” said Kristina Egan, South Coast Rail project manager. “Filing the application basically got our foot in the door for future rounds.”
South Coast Rail was one of three projects submitted by the state for possible funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment High-Speed and Intercity Rail program.
The awards, announced Thursday by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, did not include South Coast Rail, although Massachusetts did receive $70 million for its Knowledge Corridor project, which connects New Haven, Conn., Springfield and St. Albans, Vt., according to information from the state Department of Transportation.
The money Massachusetts received is part of an overall award of $160 million that will fund improvements to the existing Connecticut River rail line, according to the state Department of Transportation.
“We at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation are just thrilled with the hundreds of millions of (dollars) in investment that are going to be happening in the northeast region,” Egan said. “South Coast Rail is part of the overall state vision of high-speed rail, so I remain very hopeful.”
South Coast Rail is still in the very early design stages and does not yet have a preferred route identified, according to Egan, both factors that could have played against the project in the grant selection process.
The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement, which will designate a preferred route, in June, Egan said.
“There’s no doubt that it is a drawback,” said Egan of not having a route identified yet. “It’s easier to win these funds the more specific you are about your project.”
Egan noted that while South Coast Rail did not receive funding through the high-speed program, it could still benefit from projects that were funded, such as the Northeast Corridor, which was awarded $112 million for improvements between Boston and Washington, D.C.
“It will make the congestion issues on that train line less of an issue for us,” Egan said.
The overall project will cost about $1.9 billion if electric power is used and about $1.45 billion if diesel power is selected, according to Egan; using electric power would cut the travel time by about 10 minutes, but would involve a slightly larger impact on wetlands as poles would need to be erected to hold the electrical wires, Egan said.
The state is still waiting to hear on its application for $71.4 million in federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, funds; the money, if awarded, would be used to begin construction of the Whale’s Tooth Station in New Bedford and to reconstruct four deteriorated railroad bridges.
Brigid O’Rourke, a spokeswoman for Sen. John F. Kerry, said Kerry was hopeful South Coast Rail’s TIGER grant application would be successful; those grants are expected to be announced in mid-February, she said.
Kerry is working to include funding for high-speed rail projects, including South Coast Rail, in an upcoming jobs bill and also plans to reintroduce legislation, known as the High-Speed Rail for America Act, in the near future that would include $10 billion in funding for high-speed rail projects nationwide, according to O’Rourke.
Mayor Scott W. Lang said he was not surprised the South Coast Rail Project did not receive one of the awards announced Thursday.
“My understanding of the high-speed rail (money) is that it was not going to be allocated for a project like ours. “I (don’t) look at it as a setback from the federal funding process.”
January 29, 2010
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