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Crossed Signals Over High-Speed Rail Money

Don Stacom

July 13, 2010

Connecticut is on track to authorize more than $200 million in bonds this month for a pivotal stage of the Springfield-to-New Haven high-speed rail project, Gov. M. Jodi Rell and House Speaker Chris Donovan said.

Some key legislators aren't so sure.

"This comes as a surprise to me," said Sen. Donald DeFronzo, co-chairman of the transportation committee and the bonding subcommittee. "It's not a good way to do business for the governor or leadership not to inform us."

With a federal funding deadline less than a month away, state lawmakers, the Department of Transportation, Rell's office and the Congressional delegation appear to have different views on whether Connecticut is ready to go.

At stake could be as much as $200 million in grants to help pay for the work. Aug. 6 is the deadline for states to apply for a share of $2.1 billion in high-speed rail funds.

The Congressional delegation is trying to avoid a repeat of last winter's performance, when Connecticut got just $40 million from a pool of $8 billion.

Sen. Christopher Dodd sent Rell a letter this weekend pressing her to be sure that the state has its application, funding and engineering studies in place this time.

"It's critical that Connecticut have a complete application that demonstrates its full commitment to the project," Dodd wrote. "We are at a crucial moment for the future of rail service in our state."

Connecticut estimates that it will take $900 million to $1 billion to redevelop the 62-mile Amtrak line for high-speed and commuter train service. The DOT is expected to seek at least $200 million in this round of federal funding.

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during a tour of the line this year that the state stands a good chance of getting significant funding. But project proponents in Washington and Hartford are concerned that the Obama administration may be backing away from aggressively funding high-speed rail initiatives because of budget deficits. That would put extra importance on scoring a big share of this round of funding.

The state must put forward its own hefty investment before the application deadline, and Rell's office said Monday that that fact is no surprise.

"We are full steam ahead. We are well aware of the deadlines and everything is moving forward," spokesman Rich Harris said.

"Everybody is on board for a bonding meeting for more than $200 million," Donovan agreed.

However, Senate President Donald Williams conceded that he had learned of the plan only within the past week, saying, "We could have used more notice from the executive branch and those involved."

Williams and DeFronzo agreed that the project is important enough to justify the bonding, which would be repaid from gas tax receipts. The General Assembly this year deauthorized more than $400 million in transportation bonding for projects that aren't going to be started any time soon so the rail borrowing will stay within the state's overall bond cap, Williams said.

"This is an essential investment in jobs today and jobs in the future. It connects the state to New York and Boston, and we need it for economic development," Williams said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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