WASHINGTON – While Maryland politicians are praising the $70 million in stimulus dollars the state received Thursday for high-speed rail improvements, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Florida, called Maryland’s share “peanuts” and “an insult.”
Maryland is one of 31 states receiving a piece of the $8 billion President Obama announced Thursday for high-speed rail projects.
Mica, an advocate of high-speed rail, particularly for the congested Northeast Corridor, said Friday that the Maryland projects awarded funds are good ones, but billions of dollars went where there’s less need.
“If Maryland’s happy with it, it’s kind of a sad day,” he added.
Many of Maryland’s Democratic politicians issued enthusiastic statements Thursday about the funding, including Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, both of Baltimore; Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Cockeysville; Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore; and Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Of Maryland’s $70 million, $60 million will help renovate the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel near Penn Station in Baltimore City, and $10 million will improve the Amtrak station at BWI-Marshall Airport.
Maryland’s Department of Transportation submitted proposals for seven different rail upgrade projects totaling $360 million, but only two were funded.
In comparison, California received more than $2.2 billion; $1.2 billion went to an 84-mile line in Florida; and Illinois and Missouri jointly received $1.1 billion for a Chicago-St. Louis line. Several other states received more than $500 million.
O’Malley responded to Mica’s criticisms through his spokesman Friday, saying he is grateful for the investment in our infrastructure, and that the projects would help create jobs.
Ruppersberger said Friday he disagreed with Mica and is excited about the awards.
“My response to Mica is this: number one, this money that the president is putting out there is for stimulus…we want money where we’re shovel-ready and will create jobs.”
The tunnel project is a critical first step, Ruppersberger added, because the old tunnel is not compatible with a high-speed rail line that would run through the Northeast Corridor.
But Mica pointed out none of the Maryland money will even be put toward real high-speed rail, which requires new technology not in use. The fastest passenger line in the country — Acela, operated by Amtrak — averages about 83 mph, which Mica said pales next to the 150-plus mph lines in Europe and Asia.
Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero said Acela is a high-speed line, capable of reaching 135 mph between Washington and New York. She also said that Amtrak is putting nearly $700 million into upgrades for the Northeast Corridor, in addition to the federal stimulus money from the past year.
In an October 2009 report, Amtrak said it could not meet a 34-year-old, travel-time goal for Acela between Washington and New York of 2 hours and 30 minutes, because it lacked stable federal funding and other factors.
Amtrak also cited a $5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance and improvements in the Northeast Corridor.
The new technology to create true high-speed rail in the area has been in the planning stages for almost two decades, but little has been accomplished; a high-speed magnetic levitation rail line between Washington and Baltimore was first proposed in 1992.
One problem the Washington-Baltimore maglev line faces is that it is the most expensive of all 11 high-speed projects across the country, which are in the later planning stages, according to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009.
The Center for Public Integrity reported that more than $1 billion has already been spent by governments on the 11 proposals, which went partly to minor improvements — but not to high-speed rail.
Another problem is the level of coordination and planning required between multiple state and federal agencies. Sponsors of the maglev line include the Federal Railroad Administration, MDOT, the Baltimore Development Corp., and the District of Columbia Department of Transportation. The FRA’s preliminary national rail plan also lists almost 50 special interest groups with a stake in high-speed rail projects.
Meanwhile, thousands of Maryland commuters like Julia Marsh of Baltimore continue to hope for better service on Amtrak and MARC trains.
Marsh, who has ridden the MARC Penn Line from Baltimore’s Penn Station to Washington’s Union Station every day for almost two years, questioned the impact of the proposed high-speed rail investments on middle-class commuters.
“Why are the president and vice president really making this push for high-speed rail when the commuter rail system…is in such horrible shape?” she asked, adding, “It’s really going to take a major investment, and throwing a little bit of money at the problem isn’t going to do much.”
MARC Riders Advisory Council Chairman Rafael Guroian said, “Speaking as a commuter, I wish that the grant would have been higher; however, even $8 billion wouldn’t have been enough for what they need to do in our area.”
Ronald Kirby, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said he was pleased that Maryland received any money: “I was concerned we wouldn’t get anything because we didn’t have (proposals that were) glamorous enough.”
But “to really make a serious impact on high-speed rail in the U.S.,” he said, “you can’t do it with $8 billion.”