City jumping through final hoops for rail station funding

From the Dearborn Press & Guide

With high-speed rail funding targeted for elimination by congressional Republicans, city officials are racing against the clock to get funding for a new Amtrak station in town.

City Council on Monday approved several key measures to facilitate the construction of the complex.

The resolutions formalized agreements with the state, Amtrak, and the project architect and construction manager to build a $28 million facility using grant money from the federal stimulus law of 2009.

Dearborn’s Economic and Community Development Director Barry Murray said Thursday that the resolutions finished up the work the city had to do before the federal government could obligate the grant money.

“So now we’ve got our agreement to get the money and run the management side of it with the state. We’ve got our agreement with Amtrak to lease the station from us. And then we’ve got our agreements with our architect and our construction manager,” said Murray. “Those are the basic agreements. We have to have a place to get the money obligated and then we’ll start the final design project.”

Officials with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is handling the grant, said via email they hope to have the money obligated this summer, but declined to give a specific date.

Dearborn’s grant was awarded as part of President Barack Obama’s $8 billion high-speed rail initiative.

But with federal deficit concerns driving the agenda in Washington D.C., there are serious talks about eliminating unobligated high-speed rail funds; money that has been awarded, but not yet disbursed, like Dearborn’s. The GOP-controlled House last week passed a bill that would eliminate all of the unobligated funds and divert it to Midwest flood relief.

In a statement for the record following passage of the appropriations bill, Congressman John Dingell (D-Dearborn) derided the cuts and “cynical” and “short-sighted.”

“The 15th District is slated to lose more than $495 million in funding awarded to four high-speed rail projects in our district,” Dingell said. “This rescission will result in the loss of as many as 13,008 jobs.”

The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to draft its version of the 2012 energy and water spending bill. The push to take away rail money is expected to meet strong opposition there, however.

The chairwoman of the Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee, California’s Dianne Feinstein, is a supporter of the high-speed rail project in her state and the Obama administration is stridently against the cuts, The Los Angeles Times reported.

According to a report by the Congressional Bicameral High-Speed & Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus, the House bill would nix nearly all of Michigan’s high-speed rail projects approved since 2009, including Dearborn’s train station; rail acquisition and upgrades for the stretch between Kalamazoo and Dearborn; and at least some of the money that was awarded to buy and refurbish passenger cars for the Detroit-Chicago Amtrak route.

Mayor Jack O’Reilly said Friday that the federal budget-cutting is a concern, but that he is hopeful the FRA would be able to get the grant disbursed before the end of September, when the federal budget is due for completion.

“Once we get that letter obligating the funds, we don’t have anything to worry about and we can get to work on the project,” he said. “Is it something we’re keeping an eye on though? Oh, yes. Absolutely.”

If and when the city gets the money, the city is ready to begin the final design process.

City officials estimate the design phase would take six months and then the construction phase another 18 months on top of that.

Depending on when the money arrives, Murray said the city would look to evaluate whether it makes sense to begin construction before the winter or just wait until the spring.

“We’ll have to talk with our architect and construction manager about how much we can get done,” Murray said. “There’s not really a good point in us paying a premium to work in the winter months if we don’t need to.”

If the FRA is unable to get the funds obligated before they are potentially rescinded, it would be a coup de grace fitting for a project that turned up a Native American burial ground during site selection studies.

There has been more than one projected ground-breaking date for the project; a commuter rail service designed to be part of the upgrades has lost funding; and the sheer volume of documentation has at times been dizzying, officials said.

“This has been a bureaucratic nightmare from the beginning,” said O’Reilly. “And it’s really been frustrating because sometimes government just doesn’t function well.”

The $782-billion stimulus law necessitated the creation of previously nonexistent funding channels to get the money in the hands of states and localities.

For the high-speed rail dollars, the funds first go through the FRA, then through the Michigan Department of Transportaion, and then to the city.

But the FRA, for instance, typically functions in more of a regulatory capacity rather than a funding unit. As a result, there have been some growing pains along the way.

“We did have a learning curve to deal with initially,” said FRA spokesman Rob Kulat. “And I think everyone did, too, because there were not these types of programs. People had to apply for them before.”

One key hurdle that caused headaches was a planning document submitted by The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village.

The map showed that some of the parking for the station — slated for Elm Street on the south side of Michigan Avenue — would encroach onto the grounds of the national historic landmark, raising red flags with regulators.

“We dealt with some boundary issues with some federal agencies and that took a while,” said Therese Cody, a program manager for the Michigan office of high-speed rail and project advancement.

O’Reilly was more blunt in his assessment.

“Even though the map was wrong, and The Henry Ford said it was, and we submitted the legal documents showing otherwise, there was nothing we could do to convince them (the feds),” he said.

There also were concerns about the station design that had to be satisfied.

“You don’t want to have a station that is like this 21st Century, really cosmic-looking station that you can see from Greenfield Village or The Henry Ford. That was one of the things they were interested in,” said Cody.