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Investing more in high-speed rail will keep U.S. competitive, White House says

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:11 PM

PHILADELPHIA - The Obama administration wants to invest $53 billion in high-speed and intercity rail service in the next six years, expanding a signature transportation initiative it already has targeted with $10.5 billion.

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The plan to spend billions more on a vast high-speed-rail network was cast by the administration as vital to keeping the United States competitive with world markets that already use the technology.

"Public infrastructure investment raises private-sector productivity," Vice President Biden said Tuesday, continuing a theme struck by the president in his State of the Union speech last month. "They literally are the veins and arteries of commerce."

Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the plan Tuesday in Philadelphia's majestic 30th Street Station. Obama's budget for fiscal 2012, which will be sent to Congress next week, includes $8 billion for the plan.

There is bipartisan support for construction of high-speed rail but sharp disagreement on whether it should be funded with tax dollars or through private investment.

The proposal drew immediate criticism from House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who favors construction of high-speed rail largely with private funds.

"This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio," Mica said in a statement. "With the first $10.5 billion in administration rail grants, we found that . . . what the administration touted as high-speed rail ended up as embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere."

Although Biden spoke in more modest terms, high-speed advocates envision a network of 17,000 miles of rail capable of handling trains traveling at 220 mph. The U.S. High Speed Rail Association has estimated the price tag at $600 billion over the next 20 years, a cost that critics say the nation cannot afford.

The White House push for high-speed rail construction was launched with $8 billion in stimulus act funding. Later LaHood added $2.5 billion to boost the effort in 23 states. California has received the bulk of the awards - about $3 billion total.

Virginia received $45.4 million in the last round of funding to help pay for studies and preliminary engineering to improve service between Richmond and Washington. But more than half that money went for trains that travel much slower than the 150 to 220 mph common in Europe and Japan.

The proposal to allocate $8 billion in the next fiscal year spreads the money across three types of train travel: construction of high-speed corridors, creation of regional systems for trains capable of speeds from 90 to 125 mph and provisions for slower feeder lines into the high-speed network.

Critics have argued that a car-loving nation will not be won over to train travel in sufficient numbers to justify the federal investment. Two recently elected GOP governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, plan to forgo $1.3 billion in federal high-speed-rail funding and focus instead on highway improvement.


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