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Recovery rail funds could benefit freight industry

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USA Today reported yesterday that an inspector general investigation and congressional critics say that the Federal Railroad Administration, which awarded $8 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for high speed rail projects around the country, lacked the technical expertise to choose projects. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, described the process as “amateur hour,” according to the paper, and complained that too much money is dedicated to increasing speeds on existing Amtrak routes. The Sunlight Reporting Group ran a piece highlighting that a few weeks ago.

While Amtrak conceded that if benefited from Recovery Act funds without applying for them directly,  private interests also stand to gain. Amtrak operates on rail owned by private freight companies like CSX and Union Pacific, both of which lobbied Congress last year on the Recovery Act. Improvements made to track that Amtrak uses gives the freight rail companies capital upkeep of their infrastructure courtesy of taxpayers.

Amtrak is entitled to use the tracks of the private freight companies--the only track Amtrak maintains itself is the northeast corridor (the only tracks that the passenger railroad owns). While the freight industry does receive payments from Amtrak as an incentive to remain on schedule, Amtrak does not contribute to the maintenance of their lines.

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., Chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, has received $48,000 in campaign contributions so far from CSX for the 2009-2010 election cycle – her biggest donor for the period. CSX owns a lot of the track that Amtrak operates on in the Sunshine state. Generally, the freight industry receives little government money directly and focuses its lobbying on avoiding government regulation.