By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The Transportation Department is requesting proposals for development of a high-speed rail service between Washington and New York City, a project that Congress hopes to get included in future infrastructure spending by the incoming Obama administration.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the House's chief proponent of high-speed rail, made the announcement yesterday at Washington's Union Station. Provisions outlining government support for high-speed development were part of a sweeping railroad safety bill authored by Mica and Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) and signed by Bush in October.
The legislation called for high-speed service in 10 other rail corridors around the country, including Florida. The department's Federal Railroad Administration is asking private companies and state entities to help the federal government design, construct, finance, operate and maintain high-speed rail service. Mica estimated the cost at $18 billion to $40 billion. He said the trains could be functioning between 2012 and 2020, based on government planning projections.
Mica said he was hopeful that spending on high-speed rail would be included in spending proposals that President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are planning for infrastructure projects.
Mica said the United States has become a "third-world country" in rail infrastructure, struggling to meet demand. Amtrak ridership has been growing by double-digit rates in many parts of the country. California voters last month approved a ballot initiative authorizing the state to spend nearly $10 billion in bonds to pay for developing a high-speed rail line.
Current Amtrak service is heavily subsidized. Mica said federal taxpayers already subsidize each Amtrak ticket by $50.13 system-wide.
The Federal Railroad Administration wants trains to travel between Washington and New York City in two hours or less. Amtrak's Acela train makes the trip in about 2 hours and 42 minutes, traveling on most stretches at about 84 miles per hour. Some high-speed trains in Europe and Asia go as fast as 250 mph.
Lawmakers and transportation officials throughout the Northeast have acknowledged a number of hurdles, including problems with sorting out right-of-way issues and impacts on freight routes and existing Amtrak service. There are also bridges and tunnels that would have to be added or expanded to accommodate more trains.
Additionally, it isn't clear what private entities have the financial muscle to step forward to help develop the project, given the breakdown of the financial system and other economic woes.