The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has formally obligated $590 million in stimulus-act funds to the Washington DOT, clearing the way for projects to improve passenger rail infrastructure in that state.

The Feb. 26 announcement follows an agreement between the Federal Railroad Administration and Washington DOT regarding the release of the federal aid and a separate pact among Washington DOT, BNSF Railway, which owns the track, and Amtrak, which operates the trains, on a spending plan and rail service benchmarks.

The federal aid will go for projects that include bypass tracks and upgrades to track and signal systems on the Washington portion of the Cascades route, which runs from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.

Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said, "Signing this agreement now means work can begin during this year's construction season."

U.S. DOT awarded the $590 million to Washington in January 2010, as part of the $8 billion that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided for high-speed-rail projects and corridors around the country.

But as with other such awards, actual U.S. DOT obligations of that funding required a formal agreement between state and federal officials as well as negotiations with freight railroads that own much of the track over which the passenger trains operate.

The agreement does not apply to $161.5 million in federal rail funds that that U.S. DOT awarded to Washington last December. It was part of $1.2 billion in federal rail funds that new governors in Wisconsin and Ohio rejected and U.S. DOT reallocated to 14 states.

Washington DOT says that agreements to obligate the $161.5 million "are expected in the near future."