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Long-sought rail line expected to get funding

Long-sought rail line expected to get funding

New York’s rail service is expected to net $151 million in federal stimulus funding that will includ

New York’s rail service is expected to net $151 million in federal stimulus funding that will include money for installing a second track along the frequently bottle-necked passage between Rensselaer and Schenectady.

President Barack Obama is expected to announce the funding today in Tampa, Fla., site of one of 13 rail corridors to receive part of $8 billion in Recovery Act grants. Of the $151 million for New York, $91 million will be used to build the new track that is considered one of the keys to establishing high-speed passenger rail service along the 430-mile Empire Corridor between Buffalo and New York City.

Absent, however, are any funds to upgrade rail stations around the Capital Region. City leaders and officials from the High Speed Rail New York Coalition had hoped the federal funding would include $9.1 million to construct a long-awaited new passenger rail station in Schenectady.

“This is not everything we wanted, but it’s a good start,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who confirmed the funding late Wednesday evening. “It shows that the [Obama] administration has a good mindset towards reaching our ultimate goal: a high-speed rail line from Niagara Falls, through Buffalo, Utica and Syracuse, to Albany and south to New York City.”

Overall, the funding is roughly a fifth of the $565 million the state had requested to upgrade its rail service. The state applied for the grants in August.

The federal money will also give $1 million for planning along the Empire Corridor. This funding will aid the preparation of a service development plan and environmental study needed for high-speed rail enhancements.

Other funding coming to the Capital Region includes $3.3 million to construct a third main line track on the south approach to the Saratoga Springs yard and passenger station. The 2.2-mile rail will be built to increase capacity for Amtrak’s Adirondack line between New York and Montreal and the Ethan Allen Express running from Manhattan to Rutland, Vt.

Much of the remaining funding will be dedicated to preliminary projects that eventually will allow the Empire Corridor to handle passenger rail service moving upward of 110 mph. Some money was included for station improvements in Rochester and Buffalo to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The coalition’s Benjamin Sio said his organization worked closely with U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, as well as other elected officials since the inception of the application. Slaughter, who chairs the House Rules Committee, is a strong advocate of high-speed rail.

“We have done a good job of positioning New York for this investment,” Sio said.

The coalition is a partnership of the Metropolitan Development Association and the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce. Sio and other coalition members were in Albany Wednesday meeting with legislators about high-speed rail.

The state Department of Transportation considers the second track an imperative to alleviate a bottleneck that delays passenger and freight rail service between the Schenectady and Rensselaer train stations. The 18-mile-long second track would run alongside the existing line.

The state was unsuccessful in its bid for $11.6 billion in federal stimulus money to introduce 110 mph rail service between New York City and Niagara Falls. Nonetheless, Sio said, money to build the second track is an important step in developing high-speed rail in New York and “gets people thinking about investing in rail again, which hasn’t been done in five decades.

“The second rail is the biggest piece. Once we get that going, we can go beyond the average of 79 miles per hour on the track. It will take additional work to go further,” he said.

State officials have flirted with creating a high-speed passenger rail system along the Empire Corridor for more than two decades. Several studies were conducted and plans made during that time, but funding was always a serious roadblock.

The state’s last stab at achieving high-speed rail was attempted under the administration of Gov. George Pataki in 1998. The $185 million initiative with Amtrak also proposed laying a second track between Schenectady and Rensselaer.

But ultimately, the project suffered a series of missed deadlines, cost disagreements and engineering problems, which eventually prompted the state to file a lawsuit against Amtrak. The project was scrapped in 2004.

State estimates suggest high-speed passenger trains will double passenger ridership along the state’s three major rail corridors: New York City to Albany, Albany to Buffalo, and Albany to Montreal. The improvements will also connect high-speed service in New York to Chicago and Toronto.

The addition of second rail lines along some of these routes will also reduce travel time, improve schedule reliability and increase safety by separating freight from rail passenger service, according to state officials.

The Empire Corridor has four passenger rail round trips per day between Albany and Buffalo and 13 round trips between Albany and New York.

The goal is to provide hourly peak-period and 90-minute off-peak service between Albany and Buffalo and 30-minute peak-period service between Albany and New York.

“As far as we can tell, of the $151 million coming to New York, over $90 million will be used to build a second track through Schenectady County,” said Susan Savage, chairwoman of the Schenectady County Legislature. “This will help our economic development efforts by improving rail service, reliability and creating future opportunities for high-speed rail service.”

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