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USDOT Tries to Resuscitate the HSR Dreams Congress Wants to Bury

11:32 AM PDT on October 4, 2011

High-speed rail has had a rough go of it lately. The House refused to give it a dime for next year, while the Senate only managed to allocate a fraction of what the president wanted. President Obama stuck some money back in via his jobs package, but it already seems clear that the package won’t pass as proposed, and we know high-speed rail is the always first for the chopping block.

Meanwhile, if you look at USDOT, the well of rail funding just seems to keep on giving.

“They just keep cranking it out,” said Andy Kunz, president of the US High-Speed Rail Association. “Even when you think all the money’s all spent, they pull more money out of a hat.”

It didn’t just come out of a hat, of course. It came from the stimulus money, which is still giving, nearly three years later. Nearly the whole $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail in the stimulus has now been given out, thanks in part to USDOT’s energetic allocations these last few months – including re-allocating money returned by Florida, whose governor decided the state would be better off without high-speed rail.

Yonah Freemark writes in The Transport Politic that the Department of Transportation has been “pushing grants out of the federal government’s hands as quickly as possible so that they can not be rescinded.”

In September alone, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for intercity rail upgrades nationwide: $149 million for New York State, $116 million for New England, $49 million for Texas, $48 million for North Carolina and Virginia, $35 million for the Northeast Corridor, $31 million for Washington State, and $13 million for Oregon, among others. Earlier this summer, hundreds of millions of dollars were appropriated to California and the Northeast. Unless states turn back the money, unlikely considering that the projects have gotten so far and their pro-rail sponsors, these funds cannot be taken back by Congress.

It’s a good strategy. Big pots of money, lying unused, are tempting bait for budget-cutters in Congress — and right now there are a lot of people looking for potential cuts, from the super committee on down. But if there’s just loose change left over, it won’t make much of a dent and probably isn’t worth monkeying with — as much as Republicans would like the chance to say they’re cutting the deficit by cutting money from the high-speed rail “boondoggle.”

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