Some of rail money Fla. rejected will go to Northeast instead

Maine, Haverhill lines get millions

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 10, 2011

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Awarding $2 billion in high-speed rail grants spurned by Florida, the federal government yesterday redirected a big chunk of that money toward the Northeast, including $21 million to improve speed along 10 miles of track shared by Amtrak’s Downeaster and the MBTA’s Haverhill commuter rail line.

But Massachusetts authorities failed to secure a bigger prize: $100 million sought to rebuild a 92-year-old railroad bridge over the Merrimack River.

Competition for the money Florida rejected was fierce, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Federal Railroad Administration received heavy lobbying, ultimately spurning about 75 projects.

More than one-third of the money, about $800 million, is headed toward Amtrak and state agencies in the Northeast Corridor — the line connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington — but most of that will be spent in New Jersey.

The $20.8 million to improve the track shared by the Downeaster and the Haverhill commuter line actually went to the Maine entity that oversees the Downeaster, the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, albeit with the support of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Massachusetts is contributing $5.2 million more to pay for $26 million worth of track improvements from Wilmington to Andover.

The work has three main elements: rebuilding three grade crossings to bolster safety and speed train passage; installing 3 miles of double track to allow one train to pass another that is stalled or heading in the opposite direction; and replacing five miles of bumpy rail from the 1950s with smoother rail, said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England authority.

The double track will improve travel times not just for those riding over that section but for all passengers on the MBTA’s Haverhill Line, which carries about 5,600 daily riders, and the fast-growing Downeaster, which in April carried 1,600 riders a day, 12 percent more than the year before and 80 percent more than in 2005, Quinn said.

The Boston-to-Portland Downeaster, which runs five round trips a day along a 116-mile corridor, is in the midst of a federally funded 30-mile expansion to Brunswick scheduled to be completed late next year.

In Massachusetts, the congested rail bed north of Boston carries 27 Haverhill Line trains, 10 Amtrak trains, and about a dozen freight trains each weekday, making a parallel track particularly important for avoiding delays and disruptions that can cascade up and down the line, Quinn said.

“With all the constraints there, if you have a little bit of snow or if you have passenger delays, if you have a big group getting on at one station or if you pull out a minute late and you miss your slot, you’re done,’’ Quinn said.

Massachusetts leaders hailed that news as a boon to the state’s travelers, without calling attention to the unsuccessful Merrimack bridge application. Representative Edward J. Markey called it “a victory for Massachusetts commuters,’’ while Representative James P. McGovern deemed it “terrific news for the Massachusetts economy.’’

“We didn’t waste a split second,’’ Senator John F. Kerry said in a statement. “We worked the phones, wrote the letters, and pursued this money because we know what it will do across New England. Florida’s loss is our gain.’’

Jeffrey B. Mullan, the state’s secretary of transportation, said he had not yet spoken with his federal counterparts about why the state’s only application, to reduce bottlenecks by rebuilding the Merrimack River Bridge in Haverhill, did not succeed.

“We’re going to go back at it, looking for a funding source for it,’’ he said. “But in the meantime, we’re happy with what we got.’’

Massachusetts has had mixed success applying for $10 billion in high-speed rail funds the Obama administration has provided, the money targeted not just at bullet trains but at expanding and enhancing the traditional rail network between cities. Of the first $8 billion, awarded in January 2010, New England received less than $200 million, including $35 million to Maine for the Brunswick extension and $160 million for improvements to Amtrak’s Vermonter line along the Connecticut River, running through Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Of $2.4 billion awarded in a second round last October, Massachusetts won $32.5 million to plan an expansion of South Station to relieve congestion. But in the midterm elections, rail became a partisan target, attacked from conservative and Tea Party corners as naive and wasteful spending.

Governors in Wisconsin and Ohio rejected $1.2 billion in all, and LaHood immediately redirected it, including $2.8 million to Massachusetts for the Vermonter project and $342 million to Florida for a proposed 170-mile-an-hour link between Tampa and Orlando. Governor Rick Scott rejected all funding.

High-speed rail advocate Richard Arena said he was disappointed Massachusetts did not submit a more ambitious application. “The whole strategy that Massachusetts took going in, that we just want one project, was clearly a flawed strategy,’’ he said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at