Mo. lawmakers deal setback to high-speed rail plan

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s quest for $1 billion in federal high-speed rail money suffered a setback Wednesday when a House committee defeated an attempt to include the money in a state budget bill.

Republican lawmakers expressed concern that even with the federal money — which would pay for the design and land acquisition of a new rail route between St. Louis and Kansas City — Missouri would be unable to pay for the subsequent construction and operation costs of the rail system.

By not including the money in state budget, Missouri would be unable to spend the federal money if it was awarded the grant. But Nixon’s administration said Wednesday that it would proceed with the application, noting the money still could be added to the budget in the future if Missouri’s request is successful.

At issue is $2.4 billion in federal aid originally awarded to Florida for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. When Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently turned back the money, Missouri was one of 24 states — with applications totaling $10 billion — that sought a share. Not all of that money may actually be redistributed, because a budget deal struck last week between President Barack Obama and Congress rescinds some the spending authority for high-speed rail projects.

Missouri’s application was broken into 14 individual grant requests. A dozen of those, totaling $303 million, would fund improvements to the existing Union Pacific rail line between St. Louis and Kansas City that is used by Amtrak passenger trains. The goal would be to allow passenger trains to travel faster and slow down or stop less frequently to let other trains pass.

A $108 million request would help fund the purchase of three new passenger trains that travel between Kansas City and St. Louis and on to Chicago.

Another part of Missouri’s application seeks $600 million to conduct environmental evaluations, commission engineering designs and purchase land for a route between Missouri’s two largest cities that would allow passenger trains to travel up to 125 mph. Trains currently cannot travel more than 79 mph on the existing tracks.

Republicans on the House Budget Committee pressed the Missouri Department of Transportation for an estimate of how much it would cost to build and operate a new high-speed rail line.

“It’s just irresponsible for us to advocate something like this with no idea of the ultimate price,” said Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-Manchester.

Those costs cannot be determined until the initial studies and design are completed, said Brian Weiler, the department’s multimodal operations director. But “it would be significant, there’s no doubt about it,” Weiler said.

Some Republican senators also have expressed opposition to Missouri’s application for federal high-speed rail money.

Weiler and Nixon’s budget director, Linda Luebbering, both said the application would proceed despite the House committee vote. If Missouri were to get all or some of the money it requested, they said the administration could again ask the Legislature to include the money in the budget next year.

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