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Aiming to reduce highway and aviation congestion, create jobs and bring the United States up to speed with other countries, the Obama administration on April 16 proposed to apply $13 billion in federal funds during the next five years to develop "high-speed rail lines from city to city." Advocating "clean, energy-efficient transportation" and invoking President Dwight Eisenhower's ambitious national interstate highway project launched in the 1950s, President Barack Obama said "High-speed rail is long overdue."
"Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city," said President Barack Obama during a press briefing at the White House. "No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."
The two-part plan includes improving existing rail lines and building new ones. On the latter, the administration has identified "at least 10 major corridors in the United States"--stretching between 100 miles and 600 miles--that are candidates for high-speed rail networks. According to the administration, in addition to lowering travel times, such development would reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel, minimize dependence on foreign oil, spur "economic competitiveness" and create thousands of construction jobs.
The National Business Travel Association welcomed Obama's proposal as a means to "ease congested aviation routes and bolster the economy." Said NBTA president and CEO Kevin Maguire, "It is an economic stimulus plan in itself."
Though the administration said it would consider any plan submitted by any region, 10 areas that long had been identified as potential candidates initially top the list:
Obama noted that California voters already supported a high-speed rail system that would enable transit times of two and a half hours between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Currently the only U.S. high-speed line in operation, the Northeast Corridor (Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; New York City; New Haven, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Boston) also can compete for improvement funds.
A famous rider of the rails, Vice President Joe Biden noted the "gem we've had in the Northeast Corridor," and said, "It's time it gets extended throughout the country and improved."
Shorter-term projects to improve existing infrastructure would allow rail operators "to increase speeds on some routes from 70 miles an hour to over 100 miles per hour," Obama said. "And many corridors merit even faster service, but this is the first step that is quickly achievable, and it will create jobs improving tracks, crossings, signal systems."
Based "purely on merit," Obama said, the Federal Railroad Administration "expects to begin awarding funds to ready projects before the end of this summer." Detailed guidelines for applicants will be issued on June 17, according to Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's strategic plan on high-speed rail submitted to Congress this month.
Currently the only national railway operator, Amtrak "applauds this major improvement in higher-speed trains to move passenger rail forward" and stands ready to offer such services beyond the Northeast Corridor, said a spokesman. "Those services will be competitively bid and chosen by the states." He added that Amtrak already operates throughout the 10 identified corridors, and "we think you can certainly move to higher speeds on those existing tracks."
"Amtrak's capital investments have largely failed to keep up with the needs of its existing fleet and infrastructure, and, aside from the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project, few upgrades to the system have been made," according to LaHood's report to Congress. "States like California, Illinois, North Carolina, Washington and others have independently sponsored rail services and capital investments, but significant modernization of rail systems and service has remained out of reach of many states. While other modes have historically benefited from dedicated federal funding for infrastructure investment, rail has had no such federal capital matching source."
Obama acknowledged the various challenges, and said, "There are those who say high-speed rail is a fantasy--but its success around the world says otherwise." He pointed to examples in China, Europe and Japan. "In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined," he explained. "So it's being done; it's just not being done here."
The overall proposal includes $8 billion from the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act and, during the next five years, another $5 billion requested by Obama in the federal budget.
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