GOP Wave Could Sidetrack High-Speed Rail Projects

New Governors Reject Federal Money, Put the Brakes on Passenger Rail Projects

Nov. 5, 2010 -- In the wake of Tuesday's election results, yet another one of the administration's flagship programs may now be in jeopardy. At least two newly elected Republican governors are taking aim at high speed rail projects in their states.

President Barack Obama promised to develop America's first nationwide program of intercity high-speed passenger rail. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called the plan "a game changer" that "will help change our society for the better." The administration has already awarded $10.5 billion dollars in stimulus money to help pay for 54 rail projects in 23 states. $2.5 billion of that was doled out just last week.

But not everyone is eager to climb aboard. In Ohio, Governor-elect John Kasich has been quoted as saying, "Passenger rail is not in Ohio's future." Ohio was slated to get $400 million in federal funds for passenger trains between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. Kasich minced no words in talking about the project. "That train is dead," he said.

In Wisconsin, the state department of transportation has now stopped all work on a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee. In a memo to project contractors and consultants, the Wisconsin Transportation Secretary told them to stop work for a "few days." The memo indicated the temporary halt was "in light of the election results."

The Governor-elect, Scott Walker, is no fan of the project and made a campaign promise to kill it. The memo went on to say "our agency will be taking a few days to assess the real-world consequences, including the immediate impacts to people and their livelihoods, if this project were to be stopped."

There's some question about whether the $800 million Wisconsin project can be derailed. Local press reports indicate that the weekend before the election, the Wisconsin Transportation Department, under the outgoing Democratic governor, made a deal with the federal government to spend the entire $800 million of federal stimulus money on the high-speed rail project. The state may be forced to do that, or forfeit the dollars.

Walker has indicated he would like Wisconsin to keep the federal dollars, but spend the money on roads and bridges. That may take an act of Congress because the state has already agreed to the high-speed rail project.

Also in question is a high-speed rail line in Florida, designed to carry passengers at 168 miles an hour from Orlando to Tampa. The state has received $1.25 billion dollars in federal money for the project, but it could cost twice that much to complete.

As a candidate, Republican Governor-elect Rick Scott questioned whether the rail line was a good deal for the state.

California, New York Anxious for High-Speed Rail

And today New York's Governor-elect, Andrew Cuomo, reassured the federal government that if other states didn't want their high-speed rail money, he would be thrilled to have it for projects in upstate New York. In a letter to the Secretary of Transportation, Cuomo said his Administration "will aggressively pursue all funding opportunities to make high speed rail a reality." He urged the administration to "redirect federal funding to New York" if Ohio and Wisconsin pass up their high-speed rail dollars.

The Department of Transportation today declined to comment about specific rail projects and their future. But department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said, "We recognize that there is an incredible demand for high-speed rail dollars around the country. The Obama administration's high-speed rail program will create jobs, spur economic development and provide people with cleaner, greener alternatives to driving and flying."

Those who have long supported rail were clearly unhappy with the possibility that some projects could be abandoned. "I think it would be a tragic step in the wrong direction," said Ross Capon, President and CEO of the National Railroad Passengers Association. Capon told ABC News, "Americans need more travel choices."

That sentiment was echoed by Art Guzzetti, Vice President for Policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

"Let's not lose sight of the fact that many government leaders are excited about bringing high-speed rail to their area and most importantly, the American people want it," he said.

ABC's Riana Positano contributed to this report.