Two freshman Republicans in Congress aim to derail plans for high-speed trains across New York State as their anti-spending philosophy sparks a new division in the state delegation.
Reps. Tom Reed of Corning and Ann Marie Buerkle of Onondaga Hill both wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week, urging him to abandon plans to hike speeds of Amtrak passenger trains, especially to the point that a dedicated corridor would prove necessary. They want to save money on a project they call unneeded and too costly.
"Constructing a high-speed rail line across Western and upstate New York is not practical," Reed and Buerkle wrote. "Fulfilling this requirement would cost tens of billions of dollars.
"We simply must make the tough choices necessary to prioritize our limited resources on projects that are essential and have the potential for long-term self-sufficiency," they added.
The letter reflects the thinking of the 87 freshman Republicans who arrived at the House of Representatives in January, committed to cutting $61 billion in spending from the federal budget.
That poses a major obstacle to the efforts of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, the state's leading advocate of high-speed rail programs in Washington. She wasted no time in countering the new arguments of her upstate colleagues.
"Those who want to abandon high-speed rail in New York are also abandoning thousands of new jobs and economic opportunities for upstate New Yorkers," she said last week.
New York is scheduled to receive $158 million in federal funds to study and eventually implement improvements in the approximately 430-mile Empire Corridor between Niagara Falls and New York City.
A true high-speed rail system would require a dedicated third track through the corridor and cost billions of dollars. Incremental improvements that increase top speeds from 79 to 90 mph between Buffalo and Schenectady are considered possible in the near term. Station improvements along with new track in some areas are also seen as ways to relieve congestion between Amtrak passenger trains and the freights operated by CSX, which owns the railroad.
The two upstate Republicans' efforts to block plans for higher rail speeds in New York come just as the Cuomo administration is seeking to increase its relatively meager allocation of $158 million in federal funds for the high-speed rail. Other states with more advanced plans received far more stimulus money from Washington, but some like Wisconsin and Florida have returned the funds because their governors believe the project will prove too costly.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is asking the federal government to reallocate those returned funds to New York and has received support in Congress from Democrats like Slaughter. The exact amount sought will be determined before the application deadline of next Monday, according to Deborah Sturm Rausch, director of communications for the state Department of Transportation.
She noted that the state has also earmarked $28 million in recently awarded federal funds for track improvements, $86 million for construction of the Moynihan Station in Manhattan and $16 million for a Niagara Falls intermodal facility.
Meanwhile, Slaughter is scrambling to maintain New York's application for an increase in funds and the momentum she created for the project.
"I fully expect to continue our efforts with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Gov. Cuomo to make high-speed rail a reality in New York," she said. "So to those that may think high-speed rail is a stalled project in New York, I would say we're moving forward and are excited to continue doing so."
The issue is also creeping into the special election for the congressional seat formerly held by Republican Chris Lee.
Democratic candidate Kathleen C. Hochul, competing in a conservative GOP-dominated district, said she views the project as a job creator for Western New York. But she did not offer the same enthusiastic support as Slaughter.
"While I support the idea conceptually, we are still analyzing what the fiscal impact will be on New York taxpayers," the Erie County clerk from Hamburg said.
And Republican candidate Jane L. Corwin very much reflects the sentiments of Reed and Buerkle.
"While I am in overall support of the concept of modernizing our passenger railways, with $1.5 trillion deficits we simply cannot afford to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on this project at this time," the assemblywoman from Clarence said. "Instead, I will fight for infrastructure projects that have an immediate and direct return on our economic bottom line."
The controversy sparks a new level of concern among passenger rail advocates. But Democrats like Dan Maffei of DeWitt and Eric J.J. Massa of Corning were replaced by conservative Republicans with far less enthusiasm for the project.
"This is disappointing to see such an effort against high-speed rail in New York State," said Bruce B. Becker of East Amherst, president of the Empire State Passengers Association, "particularly when New York State is poised to take advantage of what the other states are sending back."
He added he is especially surprised at Reed, whose district hosts a significant rail equipment manufacturing presence in Hornell and Elmira Heights, where CAF USA is just starting a new contract to build 130 cars for Amtrak.
But even top economic development leaders like Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, question what effect such a costly project would have.
"While I'm intrigued by high-speed rail generally," he said, "I'm not sure that for us, the New York State program is such a big deal."
This week's exchange of news releases between Reed/Buerkle and Slaughter also reflected different versions of the willingness of CSX to cooperate with the project. The Republicans said a high-speed project would prove "disruptive" to CSX freight operations, while Slaughter disagreed.
"To the contrary," she said, "a dedicated track for high-speed rail would allow freight additional track to operate unimpeded by passenger travel."
In the past, CSX has been consistent in its dealings with the state on its right of way. According to news reports, it has agreed to allow speed upgrades from 79 to 90 mph on its existing system. But the state and the railroad are far apart on 110-mph service, which CSX believes should be set at least 30 feet from existing trackage for safety reasons and would, therefore, necessitate major purchases of new right of way as well as other significant infrastructure improvements. Still, upgrades that would allow for 90-mph service and increase average speeds are expected to result in significant time savings in rail service between New York and Niagara Falls.