The Department of Transportation's last big rail grant agreement helped push its total of obligated funds from the 2009 economic stimulus package over $44.7 billion, leaving about $3.4 billion yet to lock down.
Out of $48.1 billion the DOT could spend under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the total made available through March 4 is up from $44.1 billion on Feb. 25.
In between, the DOT announced a multi-party agreement in Washington to implement a $590 million grant, which will fund upgrades to BNSF Railway tracks between Seattle and Portland, Ore., to handle more Amtrak service in the Pacific Northwest. Paula Hammond, the state's transportation secretary, told The Journal of Commerce the money should allow BNSF to start construction this summer to improve passenger rail service and boost freight rail efficiency between the region's seaports.
To use up remaining ARRA funds at the DOT, officials say they are still ahead of deadlines set in the stimulus law. Most of the money yet to be obligated is under the administration's intercity passenger rail program, and they had until September 2012 to lock that money down. DOT officials expect to obligate the rest of the passenger rail money this year.
Any money not securely committed could become a political football. Some budget cutters in Congress want to rescind ARRA money that is not formally obligated to construction projects, more than two years after the economic stimulus package became law.
However, North Carolina is in negotiations to conclude a passenger rail grant agreement in a shared-use corridor with freight carrier Norfolk Southern Railway, which would obligate more than $500 million of the remaining stimulus money.
In addition, a new DOT invitation for grant applications to use up $2.43 billion - mainly from high-speed rail funds Florida rejected - is mostly ARRA passenger rail money, supplemented by a fiscal 2010 budget allocation. On March 11, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood opened that grant pool so states can compete for the money, but they have only until April 4 to apply. As of March 4, the DOT had paid out $26.5 billion of its ARRA total, to reimburse states for highway, transit, airport and rail work that has been completed. But agency officials say thousands more projects are already under way, backed by the much larger obligated totals, and the payouts will grow with project completions.