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Rail stimulus money: Boost for Md. or ‘insult’?

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said he was happy about the amount of stimulus money Maryland received for rail improvements.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said he was happy about the amount of stimulus money Maryland received for rail improvements.

WASHINGTON — While Maryland politicians are praising the $70 million in stimulus dollars the state received 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 last week for high-speed projects.

Mica, an advocate of high-speed rail, particularly for the congested Northeast Corridor, said 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 last week about the funding, including Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski Baltimore; Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County; 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 Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Maryland’s Department of Transportation submitted proposals for seven different rail upgrades totaling $360 million, but only two were funded.

By 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, saying he was grateful for the investment and adding that the projects would help create jobs.

Ruppersberger said he disagreed with Mica and was excited about the awards.

“This money that the president is putting out there is for stimulus,” he said. “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 line through the Northeast Corridor.

But Mica pointed out none of the Maryland money will be put toward real high-speed rail, which requires new technology. The fastest passenger line in the country — Acela, operated by Amtrak — averages about 83 mph, which pales next to 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 said Amtrak is putting nearly $700 million into upgrades for the Northeast Corridor, in addition to the federal stimulus money from the past year.

Last October, Amtrak reported 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 because of 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 the 11 high-speed projects across the country that are in the later planning stages, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

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 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. “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 money.

“I was concerned we wouldn’t get anything because we didn’t have (proposals that were) glamorous enough.”

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