ST. LOUIS — Train travel for Missouri residents will get faster after the Obama administration announced grants of $1.1 billion for development of a high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis and $31 million for upgrades between St. Louis and Kansas City.
The funding announced Thursday is part of $8 billion in grants to aid 13 rail corridors in 31 states. Some Democrats say the rail-building program could rival the interstate highways begun in the Eisenhower era in terms of what it means for travel.
"You really can't underestimate how extraordinary this moment is," Gov. Jay Nixon said at a news conference at the Amtrak station in St. Louis.
Officials said the announcement is especially good for St. Louis, which sits 300 miles from Chicago and 250 miles from Kansas City.
But while Democrats generally backed the idea, some Republicans were skeptical.
"This past summer the message the Administration gave me on their plans to spend stimulus dollars was — Congress wrote them a blank check, no oversight necessary," Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said in an e-mailed statement to The Associated Press. "I hope after his renewed commitment to transparency last night, the president will start by shining sunlight on the $8 billion he's spending on high-speed rail."
The $1.1 billion project will pay for construction of track, signal, station and rolling stock improvements to enable trains running three of the five daily round trips between Chicago and St. Louis to travel up to 110 mph. The trip now takes about six hours by train; with the improvements, it is expected to take less than four hours.
The $31 million grant in Missouri will fund expansion of existing railroad bridges and universal crossovers, and pay for improved grade crossings. Perhaps most importantly, it will allow for construction of a bridge that will carry a second rail line across the Osage River in mid-Missouri, eliminating an unpredictable bottleneck that occurs when Amtrak trains must yield to allow freight trains to pass.
Missouri Department of Transportation director Pete Rahn said the improvements will mean that Amtrak trains will be able to speed up, but more importantly, they'll reach their destinations on time more consistently.
"People will not take the train if they can't be assured they'll get to where they want to be on time," Rahn said.
No timetable was announced, but Edward Montgomery, executive director of the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, said high-speed rail projects in Europe have taken years, sometimes decades.
Montgomery said the grants will not only help rail commuters but also help the environment by inducing people to ride the train instead of drive, and create thousands of new jobs around the nation.
Nixon and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn were part of a team of eight Midwestern governors that has lobbied hard for high-speed rail in the region.
In a statement, Rick Harnish, executive director of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association, urged Congress to appropriate $4 billion in the next budget "so that we can reach the ultimate goal of world-class 220-mph bullet trains connecting the Midwest."
The $8 billion is part of $64 billion in the federal stimulus package for roads, bridges, rail and transit. It's part of an overall $787 billion economic stimulus spending package.