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State projects will drive funding for high-speed rail

Rail advocates acknowledged that they have more work to do to win support for transforming the nation's rails.

"The honeymoon is over," said Stuart Sirota, owner of Baltimore-based TND Planning Group, an architecture and urban planning firm.

Sirota said advocates need to do a better job of explaining why high-speed rail is needed.

"Train travel has been erased from our national DNA," he said. "Rail has become a foreign concept to most Americans."

Bill Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), said his group wants the federal government to pay for 90 percent of the cost, using funding for the interstate highway system as a model.

High-speed rail advocates see the new network as a way to lessen the country's dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Former transportation secretary Norman Mineta told attendees that high-speed rail would also boost the economy, create jobs and relieve congestion.

"The year ahead will be the defining one for transportation," Mineta said.

Outgoing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) delivered a video message to the conference saying that having trains travel at the same speeds they did 100 years ago is "embarrassing."

New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D), who is also leaving office, said the discussion of high-speed rail actually includes two types of improvements: upgrading corridors to allow trains in some areas to increase their speeds to 110-120 mph, which is proposed for the Richmond to Washington corridor, and the so-called bullet trains that "we see in Japan." Such trains would enable travel from New York City to Albany, about 140 miles, in 28 minutes, he said.

Amtrak unveiled a $117 billion, 30-year vision for high-speed rail on the East Coast this fall that would reduce travel times in the Northeast, Amtrak's busiest corridor.

Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has said the rail agency envisions a system that would reduce the travel time between Washington and New York City from 162 minutes to 96.

Amtrak recently named its first vice president for high-speed rail, veteran transportation professional Albrecht "Al" Engel, who serves on the APTA's board of directors. Engel is to participate in a panel Tuesday that addresses the feasibility of U.S. train travel in the Northeast mirroring the speeds of bullet trains in Japan and Europe.

Currently Amtrak's Acela trains operate as fast as 150 mph, but south of New York, the Acela runs at 135 mph because of curves, tunnels and station stops.

However, everyone - even LaHood - acknowledged that there's still a lot of work to do. The transportation secretary was rushing back to Washington after a reception - via airplane. He said he didn't know whether there was a 9 p.m. train to Washington, but he knew there was a shuttle.

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