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No rail? No funds, warns LaHood

Republican governors-elect in Wisconsin and Ohio who have publicly indicated their opposition to rail projects in their states have received letters from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The letters warn and clarify that stimulus funds approved for rail projects cannot be shifted to other projects, and that the funding will be lost if the existing rail projects do not continue.

Although officials in the U.S. Department of Transportation have not yet responded to The Iowa Independent’s request for additional information on whether such a hard-line stance applies to Iowa, it isn’t much of a leap to consider that it will. Unlike his counterparts in Ohio and Wisconsin, Republican Gov.-elect Terry Branstad has stopped short of full-throated criticism of the high-speed rail project that would link Iowa City to Chicago.

In late October, $230 million in federal funding was announced to help the two states establish rail service. It is estimated that the states would need to chip in an additional $90 million, but details on how that would be split have not been determined. Members of the legislature have earmarked $11 million for such a project and anticipated adding an additional $20 million. Such earmarked funds, however, could now fall under greater scrutiny as the Iowa House GOP majority seeks significant budget cuts.

Branstad told reporter Steve Gravelle of The Gazette that he intends “to do a full analysis and review of this whole situation.”

In LaHood’s letters to the Ohio and Wisconsin governors-elect, which were obtained by CNN, the Secretary noted that he respects a governor’s right to make decisions but that they should know the funds are linked to the rail projects.

“Consequently, unless you change your position, we plan to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Wisconsin’s project so that we do not waste taxpayer’s money,” LaHood wrote to Gov.-elect Scott Walker.

The project that includes Iowa, according to a DOT press release announcing project funding, “when completed … will form an integral part of the existing efforts to develop the Chicago Hub intercity rail system in the midwest.”

In addition to the $8 billion down payment from the Recovery Act, additional funding for high-speed rail comes from several sources that include $95 million from the DOT’s 2009 appropriations and remaining money from a related 2008 appropriations program. The DOT has also earmarked at least $2.125 billion for high-speed rail service development programs, $245 million for individual projects and $50 million for planning an multi-state proposal activities from its FY 2010 appropriations.

The Iowa-Illinois project is part of a larger effort to connect Omaha, Neb. to Chicago by rail, and a part of a larger Obama administration vision for a Midwest rail hub centered in Chicago.

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