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High-speed rail funding sparks debate

Citizens voice concerns on Facebook as their politicians debate in general media, while New York and Illinois make appeals for cash rejected by other states.

High-speed railroads currently under construction in the U.S., as well as corridors under development, and proposed lines under study from the current Department of Transportation initiative. Federal Railroad Administration

Citizens concerned with the direction of high-speed rail in their home states have taken to the Internet to voice their opinions on current plans proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Self-described New Yorkers have started a Facebook campaign in support of high-speed rail service and have inundated the Facebook page of DOT Secretary Ray LaHood with posts imploring him to grant their governor-elect's request for more funding for a high-speed rail project in their state.

"I don't know who started it, but the Facebook campaign sure got my attention!" LaHood wrote in his blog today.

"They know that saying 'No' to high-speed rail is saying 'No' to jobs, 'No' to revitalized manufacturing, and 'No' to economic development. And what's worse, it means saying 'No' to American workers at a time when they sorely need those jobs," LaHood wrote.

As of this morning, grassroots campaigns from several other states seem to have emerged on LaHood's page. Many of those posts include self-described Wisconsinites who say they support Republican governor-elect Scott Walker but disagree with his promised efforts to stop a high-speed rail project there.

The Facebook outpouring from New Yorkers and Wisconsinites is in response to a string of discourse in recent days between governors-elect, state representatives, and LaHood.

Ohio governor-elect John Kasich wrote a letter to President Obama (PDF) saying he plans to kill his state's Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati passenger rail project, and reject the $400 million in DOT money if it cannot be legally redirected for other state uses. Wisconsin governor-elect Scott Walker campaigned against a proposed DOT high-speed rail project to connect Milwaukee, Madison, and points beyond. Walker has said he would prefer to use the $810 million in DOT funds for highway and bridge projects.

LaHood issued a letter to Walker (PDF) on Monday explaining that the federal funds are earmarked specifically for high-speed rail, and the DOT will have to rescind the $810 million for Wisconsin if the funds are not directed to the agreed project.

"None of the money provided to Wisconsin may be used for road and highway projects, or anything other than high-speed rail. 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 taxpayers' money," wrote LaHood.

Ohio is in the same position, standing to lose $400 million in DOT funding if it rejects its proposed rail project.

New York governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, wrote a letter to LaHood asking if New York could apply to receive any high-speed funds that might be rejected by other states. The funds could go toward the Empire Corridor, which would connect New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and points beyond via high-speed rail.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn told The Chicago Tribune that he also made a request to LaHood by phone informing him that Illinois would also like to apply for any available high-speed rail funding as a result of rejection by other states.

Several Republican governors-elect have said they do not support a high-speed rail initiative for the U.S. at all, while others have said they support a high-speed rail initiative in theory, but don't agree with the current DOT plan. As Republicans take control of the House this January, that disapproval could have an effect even in states that approve of their proposed projects.

Florida State Representative John Mica, a senior Republican, is expected to head the House Transportation Committee in January and has told the Associated Press he plans to reevaluate the over $10 billion initiative.

"I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail, but it has to be where it makes sense," Mica told the AP.

Mica said while he supports many of the Northeast projects, he does not agree with other areas of the DOT's plan because many are not truly high-speed railroads.

He's right.

Several of the proposed high-speed rail projects, like the $800 million Tampa and Orlando connection proposed for Mica's home state of Florida, would run trains that achieve speeds of up to 168 mph only along some parts of the route. The trains would not consistently maintain high speeds as high-speed railroads in Asia and Europe currently do.