North Carolina was shortchanged when the United States mapped out the interstate highway system in the 1950s, but President Barack Obama today offered reason for the state to expect a more generous share of $8 billion in stimulus spending to build a national network of high-speed rail corridors.
"I am more reassured than ever that we're in the game," Pat Simmons, the state rail director, said this morning after a briefing with Obama. "We're part of developing and deploying this national network."
The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Washington, D.C., through Richmond and Raleigh to Charlotte, is one of 10 major high-speed corridors pegged by Obama for potential funding. And it is among six that federal officials say are likely to get on a shorter list of first-round grant winners, according to the criteria spelled out today in Obama's high-speed rail plan.
Here's how the president envisions it:
Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.
Some of the first grants from the Federal Railroad Administration will go for rail-improvement projects that are ready to go – environmental permits and engineering work have been completed. Simmons said North Carolina has a list of projects eligible for this first burst of railroad stimulus spending.
They include a plan to build 26 miles of double tracks for the six passenger and 40 freight trains that now run daily between Greensboro and Charlotte. There are several projects to build grade separations -- overpasses to eliminate at-grade car-train crossings -- including a plan to drop Hopson Road beneath the tracks in Research Triangle Park. North Carolina also will seek federal funds for new locomotives and refurbished passenger cars.
Obama outlined another stream of spending “to develop entire phases or geographic sections of corridor programs" that have been planned and have received environmental study. This sounds favorable to a joint North Carolina-Virginia effort to rebuild and speed up the abandoned CSX line between Raleigh and Richmond.
The Federal Railroad Administration has not decided which states and which rail corridors will get money from the $8 billion set aside for high-speed and intercity passenger train service in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or the $5 billion marked for fast trains in Obama’s budget proposals for the next five years. The administration will begin accepting grant applications this summer, and writing checks before the end of the year.
Back in the Eisenhower era, North Carolina was one of the few states that did not get freeway loops around its cities as the nation began building its interstate highway system. There were plenty of smaller states with smaller towns that had interstate loops by the end of the 1960s. Today North Carolina is still trying to scrape up money to finish its urban loops.
Likewise in the 1950s, only a handful of state capitals were left off the interstate highway map. Raleigh was by far the largest of this neglected group.
Proposals to convert U.S. 1 into a north-south interstate through Raleigh were rejected. Interstate 40 finally came to town in the 1980s, but Raleigh still sits off the main road when it comes to driving north or south.
Maybe our luck is about to change with the prospect of fast, frequent train service north to Richmond and Washington, and south to Charlotte. Stay tuned.