WASHINGTON — Despite the efforts by Republican lawmakers to scrap President Barack Obama's funding for high-speed rail projects, 24 states have submitted applications for additional money, the Department of Transportation said Wednesday.
The states had until Monday to request all or part of the $2.4 billion that Florida returned when Republican Gov. Rick Scott canceled a high-speed rail project in February.
Among the new applicants is Wisconsin, whose Republican governor, Scott Walker, earlier rejected $810 million for a project in his state, money that eventually went to Florida.
The Obama administration has committed $10.5 billion to high-speed rail projects across the country, and it wants to spend $53 billion on such projects in the next several years. But the plans have met resistance in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
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The House voted in February to eliminate the president's high-speed rail funding as part of a bill to cut $60 billion in federal spending in the current fiscal year. A plan that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., offered Tuesday also excludes rail funding.
The Obama administration also has run into opposition from newly elected Republican governors, including Wisconsin's Walker, Ohio's John Kasich and Florida's Scott, who say the projects are too costly and risky for taxpayers as states face budget shortfalls.
But noting that governors and members of Congress from both parties "have been clamoring for the opportunity to participate" since the Florida money became available, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "We are extremely pleased to see the bipartisan enthusiasm behind all the requests to get into the high-speed rail business."
Walker's enthusiasm seems to reverse his campaign pledge last year. Before he became nationally known for his effort to strip Wisconsin's public employees of their collective bargaining rights, he railed against funding for high-speed trains.
"I am drawing a line in the sand, Mr. President," Walker wrote in a letter to Obama last year. "I will put a stop to this boondoggle the day I take office."
Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week that the new request for $150 million would be used to upgrade train service between Chicago and Milwaukee rather than start new service between Milwaukee and Madison, as envisioned by Walker's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, and the Obama administration.
"This is not inconsistent with the position I took in the past," Walker told the newspaper, saying that he'd always supported upgrading the popular Chicago-Milwaukee service but opposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new train that might leave state taxpayers on the hook for future costs.
The money that Ohio and Wisconsin turned down went to Florida to help complete one of the signature pieces of the president's effort: a line between Orlando and Tampa. Scott infuriated state lawmakers, and LaHood, when he scrapped the project in February.
"The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits," Scott said.
Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime passenger-train advocate, slammed Scott's move.
"Even if you were doubtful, I don't understand how in this economy in Florida you could walk away from 24,000 high-paying jobs," Biden said in Tampa last month.
When lawmakers and LaHood failed to reach a deal to salvage the Florida project, the Transportation Department made the $2.4 billion available to other states last month.
The Federal Railroad Administration will review the new funding requests, which total $10 billion. The agency hasn't set a date to announce the winning bids.
In addition to the states, Amtrak is asking for $1.3 billion to modernize the Northeast Corridor, the country's busiest passenger-train route. The money would be used to boost speeds between Philadelphia and New York, replace a century-old bridge in New Jersey and do preliminary engineering and environmental work for two new tunnels under the Hudson River into Manhattan.
Among the bids for the $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail money are:
- California: $2.4 billion, to extend the first segment of a planned high-speed line in the Central Valley. When complete, it will link San Francisco to Los Angeles.
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