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The transportation world is buzzing over the President’s visit to Florida Thursday, reportedly to announce the lucky recipients of $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects. The Associated Press is among reporting those that the announcement will likely include high-speed rail money for 31 states.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported in November, money for high-speed rail — starting with that $8 billion — has unleashed a new frenzy of lobbying. Lobbying on high-speed rail – from both the public and private sector — more than tripled in the third quarter of 2009, compared to a year earlier.

And there’s been no letup. Some new players formally registered their interest with the U.S. Senate in the fourth quarter of 2009, including Fortune 500 corporations like microchip manufacturer Intel and Jacksonville-based freight railway CSX. Tampa’s Hillsborough County was among other new entrants. Florida’s state government scrambled to complete a commuter rail plan in December, in part to signal its commitment to high-speed rail. And CSX was a big winner in that local deal, selling track to the state for hundreds of millions of dollars to clear the commuter deal. When it comes to the more ambitious high speed plan, CSX would like to see brand new tracks — rather than sharing it with freight trains.

Companies that stayed active on the advocacy front include IBM and engineering company HDR, among others, while a batch of local governments potentially interested in rail, including Charlotte’s Mecklenberg County, have entered the lobbying scene in the new year. The Nevada-based Western High Speed Rail Alliance also formally joined the fray in January.

This map provides a starting point for tracking high-speed rail activity across the United States. Red dots represent the public and private organizations formally lobbying Washington, D.C., on high-speed rail policy. Dollar signs represent projects awarded a slice of the $8 billion in stimulus funding for high-speed rail. Blue trains represent other rail advocacy groups across the U.S. that are not registered to formally lobby Washington lawmakers. Source: Senate Office of Public Records. Production: Matthew Lewis/The Center for Public Integrity.

Hardly a week has gone by without a prominent domestic rail event. Central Japan Railway, Kawasaki, and the Embassy of Japan participated in a Japanese-sponsored forum just two blocks from the White House last week that welcomed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Democratic House Transportation Committee chairman James Oberstar. Other new groups debuted, including the American Public Transportation Association’s Center for High Speed Rail, and the American High Speed Rail Alliance.

So far Congress has kept up its end of the bargain. Lawmakers added another $2.5 billion for high-speed rail last month via annual appropriations spending. Talk is swirling now around more funding from a jobs package.

“There’s not a lot of difference between red and blue here,” said House railroad subcommittee staff director Jennifer Esposito while speaking on a recent panel. In a sign of Congressional rail fervor, that subcommittee has gone from barely breathing in recent years to denying entry to interested members at the dawn of the new Congress. It swelled to 45 representatives last year, from 26 in 2004.

Federal Railroad Administration research chief Kevin Kessler summed it all up while appearing on the same panel. “May you live in interesting times,” he said. He added there is “also the opportunity to fail.”

But for now, optimism reigns. Members of the Obama administration held a webcast session in December in which they sat with various manufacturers, railroad officials, and other industry experts. Thirty-two companies pledged to ramp up operations if they receive funding from the states, from upstart US Railcar to mighty General Electric. And a pair of congressionally enacted committees have taken shape to address the fundamental challenges of setting technical industry standards and finding long-term financing. Those groups met this month in Washington.

Keeping all those interests on the same page — from labor, state and local government, manufacturers, operators, and others — has proven to be a challenge in the past. But billions in new money has a way of bringing folks together.

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