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President Obama has repeatedly called for more spending on the nation's infrastructure and that includes railroads. The original stimulus bill allocated $8 billion to develop high-speed passenger rail, and this year Congress added another $2.3 billion. But budget worries and politics have kept high-speed rail projects off the fast track.
And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, thats made them a contentious campaign issue in some states.
BRIAN NAYLOR: In Wisconsin, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker put together a cheeky ad in which clips from President Obama are cut together with the candidate's pitch.
(Soundbite of a political ad)
Mr. SCOTT WALKER (R-Wisconsin, Gubernatorial Candidate): But you, President Obama and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, are trying to spend $810 million to build a high-speed train line between Milwaukee and Madison.
President BARACK OBAMA: Now let me be clear...
Mr. WALKER: No, let me be clear. I'd rather take that money and fix Wisconsin's crumbling roads and bridges.
NAYLOR: Walker is not the only Republican questioning rail spending. His opponent in the GOP primary, former Congressman Mark Neuman, says the high-speed rail money should be returned and go toward tax cuts. And Republican candidates in California, Ohio and Florida also say this is not the time to be spending money on high-speed rail.
It's a tempting political appeal to those voters fed up with government spending, but it still puzzles Kevin Brubaker of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
Mr. KEVIN BRUBAKER (Environmental Law and Policy Center): I certainly wouldn't be advising a Republican to come out against a project with as much broad-based support as high-speed rail. These projects are supported by the public, by chambers of commerce, by labor unions, by environmentalists. They're a win-win-win.
NAYLOR: What's more, Brubaker says, the money can't be returned or spent on other projects.
Mr. BRUBAKER: If Wisconsin turns back high-speed rail money, that money will simply be spent on high-speed rail projects in Illinois, Florida or California.
NAYLOR: While Republican candidates have been railing against high-speed rail spending, incumbents have actively sought the money. The Federal Railroad Administration says it received applications from 10 states for a share of the $2.3 billion in rail funding Congress appropriated this year. Added up, their projects amount to more than $8 billion.
But while the high-speed rail funds in the stimulus bill were outright federal grants, Congress added some strings to the money it allocated this year: States will have to chip in a 20-percent match.
In Oregon, where officials would like to upgrade existing service, Betsy Imholt, the state's rail planning director, says it's a heavy lift.
Ms. BETSY IMHOLT (Rail Planning Director, Oregon): When you're talking about a $2 billion project, which is what, to get to the service goals we've laid out, you need - $2 billion, just to improve what we've got already - then, you know, the match on that is $400 million. Well, that doesn't exist.
NAYLOR: Imholt says unlike highway projects, which have a dedicated revenue source, namely the gas tax, there is no such funding stream for rail.
Ms. IMHOLT: Right now, we're kind of looking under the couch cushions for any spare change that's legal and available that we can put up for match. But that's going to run out here really quick because there's not that much available.
NAYLOR: Other states have scaled back or are delaying work on rail projects because they lack the necessary matching funds. Peter Gertler is chairman of high-speed rail services for HNTB, a transportation design and consulting firm. He remains bullish on high-speed rails' prospects.
Mr. PETER GERTLER (Chairman, High-speed Rail Services, HNTB): I do think it's a challenge, but I do think that we're finding the champions for high-speed rail in California, in Florida, in the Midwest, still see this as a significant opportunity for their regions, for their states both as a transportation option and also as a stimulus option for getting people back to work.
NAYLOR: And the Obama administration is standing solidly behind its high-speed rail plans, despite political opposition. In Wisconsin this summer, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood vowed high-speed rail was coming to that state, saying there is no stopping it.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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