New England rail corridor in line for $160m in US funds

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON - New England states are expected to receive $160 million to upgrade a rail corridor linking New Haven, Western Massachusetts, and Vermont when railroad stimulus grants are unveiled today, lawmakers said.

“It’s a good piece of news for the Pioneer Valley,’’ said Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Springfield, the hub of the route. “This is precisely what stimulus was meant to do.’’

“The Obama administration recognized the project’s strong potential and the powerful impact it will have on our economy,’’ said Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. “I couldn’t be more thrilled or more grateful.’’

The money will pay for track upgrades, signaling, and station construction. There are six Amtrak round trips weekdays between New Haven and Springfield, one of which continues on to St. Albans, Vt. The project envisions rerouting the Vermont segment to a more direct route through Massachusetts, slashing as much as 25 minutes off travel times, and restoring passenger train service to Holyoke and Northampton.

President Obama intends to detail which rail projects will share in $8 billion from the economic stimulus program, for improved rail service and high-speed trains, in Tampa today. Thirteen corridors are expected to win funds in the long-awaited announcement, and the administration will also award smaller grants for upgrades to existing lines.

Word of the winners began to leak out yesterday. Florida, which proposed building a bullet train between Orlando and Tampa, is expected to get a big chunk, as is California. More than $50 billion worth of applications were filed.

The Connecticut River Valley application was a joint project among Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont. The status of two other Commonwealth applications - the South Coast rail project to link New Bedford and Fall River with Boston and another to improve a route between Boston and Springfield - was uncertain last night.

Tom Irwin, one of the founders of the New England Regional Rail Coalition, which advocates expanding the region’s passenger rail network, welcomed the funds for the Connecticut Valley route but said the region had a long list of other needs. “We’ll certainly be interested in seeing what else comes to the region and how New England fares as a whole,’’ he said.

In addition to the Massachusetts applications, Maine also applied for upgrades to the Downeaster route between Boston and Portland.

“Nobody’s going to sleep well tonight,’’ joked Wayne Davis, chairman of TrainRiders/Northeast, a Maine advocacy group.

Representative John W. Olver, Democrat of Amherst, who has long lobbied for upgrades on the Western Massachusetts route, praised the rail stimulus program, calling it “the most important transportation initiative since the Eisenhower interstate highway system.’’

Senator John F. Kerry also praised the funds for the Western Massachusetts route but said the government would need to commit far more money to catch up to high-speed rail networks in Europe and Asia, where trains running at more than 150 miles per hour are commonplace.

“We’re getting outspent by twenty-fold,’’ he said.

Congress voted last month to provide another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail, and Kerry has proposed legislation that would provide about $10 billion over the next five years.