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

By Ashley Halsey III
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.

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.

According to the Associated Press, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the second-ranking House Republican, urged the administration to involve the business community in its high-speed-rail plans.

"I'm not in favor of additional monies that we don't have to be spent on those projects and would certainly look for ways to leverage the private sector to get it involved," Cantor said.

In announcing the plan Tuesday, Biden twice mentioned that he took more than 7,900 round trips on Amtrak trains between Washington and his home in Delaware during his years in the Senate. He said transforming rail service to match the high-speed lines proliferating in China and Europe is essential to continued prosperity.

He said the United States "taught the world" about transportation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"If we don't get a grip, folks, they're going to be teaching us," he said. "They're going to own our kids."

Biden said building rail lines would relieve highway congestion on the East and West coasts, where most Americans live, and put people back to work.

"Right now, nobody makes these [trains] in America," he said. "Our long-term commitment is going to give birth to a new industry."

The American Public Transportation Association endorsed the administration's plan to invest more in high-speed rail.

"Investing in our country's transportation infrastructure is vital for economic growth, competitiveness and quality of life," said William Millar, president of the public transportation association. "In addition, the formation of a high-speed-rail network that connects to public transportation will relieve both highway and aviation congestion."

Mica urged the administration Tuesday to focus its spending on the crowded Northeast rail corridor and not to "squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects."

Last fall Amtrak announced a 30-year plan to invest $117 billion in developing high-speed rail in the Northeast corridor. Amtrak President Joseph Boardman has said the system would reduce the travel time between Washington and New York City from 162 minutes to 96 minutes and the New York-Boston time from 215 minutes to 84.

However, Mica's disdain for Amtrak is as well established as Biden's love for it.

"Amtrak's Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service," Mica said.

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