Rail advocates call for multi-state approach

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(Host) President Obama has pledged $8 billion of stimulus money to upgrade high speed inter-city rail service.

States will compete with each other for the money. But because rail service ties communities together, some rail advocates in this region are calling for a multi-state approach.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations Nancy Cohen from WNPR in Hartford reports.

(Cohen) The once-a-day northbound train from New Haven is pulling into the station in Brattleboro Vermont.

Anna Lehr Muser, a bespectacled college student slept and read during her trip from Philadelphia. She says trains are the most sustainable way to travel. And she wants more of them.

(Lehr Muser) "Way more trains lines going to lots more areas so more people can use it. We need cheaper fares. It needs it be more accessible to more people. It needs to be a more viable means of transport.

(Cohen) More passenger trains would reduce carbon emissions from cars that cause global warming. More freight trains would take more trucks off the road. And new train stations spur economic development. Tom Irwin of the Conservation Law Foundation says it’s a green kind of development .

(Irwin) "They act as an important sort of counter magnet to sprawl. Rail can be used as a very power tool to promote more compact, more vibrant healthier communities."

(Cohen) Just about every state in the Northeast is hoping to secure federal funding for rail. Vermont wants new service on the western side of the state from Burlington to Rutland. New York wants funding for the trip from Albany to Buffalo. Maine wants to speed up passenger service south to Boston

Some of these projects will take advantage of old rail bed. Advocates say we can breathe new life into it. Like Dana Roscoe of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. He points out a neglected stretch of track in Northampton, Massachusetts that carried passengers 20 years ago.

(Roscoe) "Here we are standing in front of the Union Station Restaurant which used to be the Union Station train station."

(Cohen) Now, these tracks carry only freight. But Massachusetts will apply for funding to improve them and reinstate the old train depot. Roscoe says that could shave 50 minutes off the trip between New Haven and Vermont.

Peter Burling, chair of New Hampshires Rail Transit Authority, says although each state has its own project, they shouldn’t fight each other to get funding.

(Burling) "I think that’s a formula for insuring that none of us get what we want ,which is system that ties us all together."

(Devine) "What I found out in this business, in transit, in rail, it doesn’t recognize state lines. It’s one long corridor."

(Cohen) That’s Stephen Devine of Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation

(Devine) "What happens on one end of the corridor affects the other end of corridor so that how we try to view these."

(Cohen) Devine wants funding to build another track in his state. This would speed up the Northeast’s high-speed service from Boston to Washington. And it would help Rhode Island’s commuter service and freight trains. Devine says Rhode Island is talking with neighboring states about it.

But Tom Irwin of the Conservation Law Foundation wants even more collaboration. Irwin chairs the steering committee of the New England Regional Rail Coalition

(Irwin) "What we don’t have is a true wide regional vision of what projects should be top priority in terms of region-wide benefit."

(Cohen) But others say the conversation has been going on for a long time. The Coalition of Northeast Governors or CONEG says it’s working with states to identify which projects could strengthen passenger rail.

Anne Stubbs of CONEG says it’s also talking with the Federal Railroad Administration

(Stubbs) "They do not want a bridge to nowhere. They do not want a station or a track work that does not lead to inter-city service that connects our communities."

(Cohen) The Federal Railroad Administration says it wants states to identify what they consider to be the best projects in their region. But it isn’t only the Northeast who will be going after the rail money. Eight Midwestern states are collaborating on projects. And California wants to build high-speed service from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The first round of applications are due in August. Those grants will be awarded by late September.

For VPR News, I’m Nancy Cohen.

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