WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has a message for Republican governors who campaigned against the president's high-speed rail program: Build the trains or give back the money.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday rejected a request from Gov.-elect John Kasich in Ohio to use the $400 million in federal funds pledged to that state's train project on other projects like road construction or freight lines.
"I would like high-speed rail to be part of Ohio's future," LaHood wrote. But if the state won't go forward, it's necessary "to wind down Ohio's involvement in the project so that we do not waste taxpayers' money," he said.
A day earlier LaHood sent the same message to Wisconsin officials about the $810 million in rail money pledged to that state. Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker campaigned against the Madison-to-Milwaukee line, including creating a website opposed to the project.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allocated an initial $8 billion for a high-speed rail program, doesn't allow the money to be spend for other purposes, said Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
The Republican governor-elects have criticized the high-speed rail program as unaffordable in tough economic times. Both states would have to invest considerable dollars in the projects in addition to federal aid. Walker on Tuesday urged the federal government to give up on high-speed rail and instead use the money to repair roads and bridges he said were "literally crumbling."
Kasich has said that the top speed of 79 miles per hour on the proposed Ohio project is too slow and he has questioned 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 — but a well-used interstate, I-71, lies along the same route.
The administration contends the projects will generate jobs and provide needed alternatives to congested highways and airports. Thirty foreign rail manufacturers have committed to locate operations in the United States "so that we can restart idled manufacturing plants in Ohio and other states," LaHood wrote Kasich.
LaHood also lavished praise in a blog posting Tuesday on New Yorkers who have started a Facebook campaign to back a high-speed rail project in the Empire State.
"They know that saying 'no' to high speed rail is saying 'no' to jobs, 'no' to revitalized manufacturing, and 'no' to economic development," LaHood said.
The blog posting "is part of the message that they're trying to drive home to states that are on verge of turning down the money that the money really can go to other places," Capon said.
Kasich indicated he isn't giving up the money without a fight.
The governor-elect "is fully aware of the rules surrounding the use of federal funds and remains interested in pursuing additional flexibilities on this issue," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. "It is, however, refreshing to see that Secretary LaHood understands the importance of preventing anymore wasteful spending on the passenger rail project."
Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this story.