State projects will drive funding for high-speed rail

By Michael D. Bolden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 8:57 PM

The Obama administration plans to reallocate money designated for high-speed rail if the states granted the funds reject them.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the announcement Monday night to hundreds of politicians, businesspeople, urban planners and rail enthusiasts gathered in New York City to assess the state of high-speed rail in the United States during a three-day conference sponsored by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association (USHSR) trade group.

Critics have said that high-speed rail would not attract enough riders to justify the multibillion-dollar price tag. They have also questioned spending billions of dollars on infrastructure for the network when the nation's economy is fragile and governments are struggling with deficits.

But rail advocates sketched a vision Monday for a 17,000-mile network linking U.S. cities with electric trains capable of traveling at 220 mph.

USHSR President Andy Kunz said the transportation network would cost $600 billion over the next 20 years.

Two recently elected governors have announced plans to scuttle high-speed projects in their states. Wisconsin Gov.-elect Scott Walker (R) wants to kill a high-speed rail project that would link Madison and Milwaukee and said he would use the money to improve roads. The state has been awarded $81o million for the project.

Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich (R)asked the Obama administration for permission to repurpose $400 million in high-speed rail funds for highway projects. Kasich says Ohio doesn't need the project. But LaHood said Ohio would forfeit the money it doesn't use for high-speed rail.

When the state funds are rejected, LaHood said Monday night, they will be redistributed "in a professional way in places where the money can be well spent."

There are "a lot of states that would like to have access to that money," he said, and reallocation will be done quickly.

LaHood recently announced awards of $2.4 billion for high-speed rail projects in 23 states, including $45.4 million for Virginia to help fund studies and preliminary engineering in order to improve service between Richmond and Washington. It was the second round of awards, as the administration previously distributed $8 billion in stimulus money for high-speed rail projects. California has received the bulk of the awards - about $3 billion total.

"This is not your grandfather's train," Kunz said. Videos and displays of sleek trains with colorful interiors were on view around the conference area at the New Yorker Hotel, as companies that hope to profit - from Alstom to Siemens to Kawasaki - advertised their technology.

The forum includes discussions on transforming the country's rail corridors, insights from companies and government leaders that have worked on high-speed rail in other countries, and presentations on financing, construction and legal issues.

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