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The Associated Press September 23, 2010, 3:24PM ET

Obama's rail plan riding on key governor races

President Barack Obama's plan for high-speed passenger rail has a lot riding on the outcome of some key gubernatorial races in November.

Republican candidates in Ohio and Wisconsin have promised to cancel rail projects that are getting millions of dollars from the federal stimulus package, mocking the plans as boondoggles or complaining the trains would leave the states with too much of a financial burden for future operations.

Florida Republican nominee Rick Scott is also making threats. Scott is opposed to any rail plan that would have to be subsidized indefinitely, spokeswoman Bettina Inclan said. She didn't comment on whether Scott would return $1.3 billion in stimulus money for high-speed trains connecting Tampa and Orlando.

Rail advocates who say the U.S. needs greater transportation options for the 21st century see GOP opposition as nothing but raw partisan politics, a way to destroy projects that, if successful, would stand as legacies to Obama's stimulus plan.

"I guess it makes sense for them politically, and it plays into the fantasy that highways pay for themselves," said Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes passenger rail.

Obama in January awarded $8 billion in stimulus money for 13 passenger rail projects. The largest would connect San Francisco with Los Angeles, using trains traveling up to 220 mph.

Some of the projects are years from completion and will require more funding, while others are getting started.

Construction began Friday on track improvements that will allow passenger trains to run up to 110 mph between Chicago and St. Louis, up from 79 mph; and North Carolina is refurbishing passenger coaches and locomotives, the first phase of a plan to help that state increase top speeds to 90 mph on trains between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican who took office in January, supports a $75 million stimulus-funded track improvement project in the northern part of his state, calling passenger rail important to future development efforts.

But in Ohio, Republican candidate John Kasich has declared that state's rail project dead if he's elected governor.

Ohio is scheduled to get $400 million for a startup service connecting Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati with trains reaching 79 mph by late 2012 or 2013. Final engineering would begin this fall.

Kasich, a former congressman and Fox News commentator who is ahead in the polls against Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, said the speed is too slow and questions whether enough people will ride it. About 6 million people live along the Cleveland to Cincinnati corridor, making it one of the most heavily populated corridors without rail service in the Midwest.

Kasich would rather use the stimulus money to fix roads and bridges, but that doesn't appear to be an option.

By law, the money must be used on passenger rail, said Rob Kulat, spokesman for the Federal Rail Administration. If a governor rejects the money, the funds will be reallocated to rail projects in other states, he said.

The Obama administration is trying to avoid making the rail projects more of a political issue than they already are in states where Republican gubernatorial are pushing hard.

In various visits to Wisconsin and Ohio, U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has expressed confidence that the projects will proceed but hasn't said exactly how. Spokeswoman Olivia Alair said the agency won't speculate about what it might do if Republican candidates are elected.

Alair said high-speed rail is a national program that will connect the country and spur economic development, transforming transportation much like the interstate highway system did under President Dwight Eisenhower.

"It's hard to imagine what would have happened to states like Ohio and Wisconsin if their leaders had decided they didn't want to be connected to the rest of the country back then," Alair said.

Republican Scott Walker, a Milwaukee County executive running for Wisconsin governor, promises to stop an $810 million stimulus-funded project to build a 110-mph rail line between Madison and Milwaukee, calling the plan wasteful and misguided.

Wisconsin has federal approval to spend the first $300 million for track construction and is beginning to look at bids, said Cari Anne Renlund, executive assistant at the state's Department of Transportation.

The project could lead to as many as 5,500 jobs, she said. The state's unemployment rate is 7.9 percent.

"We believe that anyone who tries to stop this project is going to kill a lot of jobs in this state when they are badly needed," Renlund said.

Wisconsin could also be on a hook financially if it fails to follow through.

Any state that doesn't complete work outlined in a contract must reimburse the federal government for the portion of stimulus money spent, said Kulat, the federal rail spokesman.

Walker, who is in a tight gubernatorial race with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, said he's willing to take that risk because he doesn't think many construction contracts will be signed by the time he would take office in January.

"Washington, for political purposes, is trying to handcuff a future administration here," he said. "It won't happen."

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