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California has competition for stimulus’s $8 billion in high-speed rail dollars

December 1, 2009

From USA Today – The prospect of bullet trains whisking travelers from city to city at more than 200 miles an hour, stalled for years in America’s car-loving culture, should finally get a boost this winter.

That’s when the Federal Railroad Administration will start handing out $8 billion in economic stimulus money, according to spokesman Rob Kulat.

All indications point to late January or February for the first round of grants, says Yoav Hagler, an associate planner for America 2050, an organization focused on infrastructure, economic development and the environment.

Proposals in Congress offer the prospects of billions more. The Senate voted in September to hand out $1.2 billion annually for five years after the House of Representatives approved $4 billion. Committees are working to reconcile the amounts.

States have been busy making plans for the unprecedented investments in rail lines and making arguments for why they deserve a piece of the money.

California voters agreed in November 2008 to borrow nearly $10 billion for rail. North Carolina and Virginia are nearly finished with an environmental study. Governors of eight states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin — are backing a network centered on Chicago, according to Dan Johnson-Weinberger, a lobbyist for the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

Florida, Texas, Washington state, Northeast states and others are also in the mix. States have asked for $57 billion, but less than a seventh of that is available from the stimulus, Kulat says.

“We’ve never spent that kind of money,” Johnson-Weinberger says. “All the Midwestern states see that this is the first stage in a long-term project to build a Midwestern network.”

Hagler, who has studied potential rail links across the country, says California, the Midwest and the Northeast should split the first round of money.

Hagler co-authored a report for America 2050 that says the greatest demand for rail would be served by linking San Francisco to Los Angeles, Washington to Boston, and Chicago to Minneapolis, Detroit and St. Louis.

“These are the places that have the population, the economies, and the existing travel markets to really support these systems,” Hagler says.

He says the Federal Railroad Administration will favor projects that have studied the environmental effects of their proposals, giving an edge to California.

The Golden State envisions trains zipping along at average speeds topping 200 mph between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s the country’s most advanced plan and one with a potential $45 billion price tag, says Samer Madanat, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Berkeley.

Most Amtrak trains reach top speeds of 79 mph, Hagler says. The USA’s only current train service that could be considered high-speed rail, Amtrak’s Acela Express, runs from Boston to Washington at top speeds of 150 mph. Hagler says the Acela hits its top speeds only on small stretches.

The Northeast could be hindered in winning money for improvements by a lack of environmental study, Hagler says. More progress has been made on a study for the proposal submitted by North Carolina and Virginia, he says.

That could help provide faster trips from Charlotte to Richmond, Va. Under that plan, trains would average 86 mph and reach top speeds of 110 mph, says Patrick Simmons, North Carolina’s rail division director. Today, Simmons says, North Carolina trains move along at 54 mph.

Madanat says California, if it wins funding, would be a proving ground for whether faster trains would attract enough riders.

“I don’t think high-speed rail will have another chance if it fails in California, and that would be too bad,” he says. “So it’s really important that we do it right here.”

By Jordan Schrader
USA Today
Mr. Schrader reports for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen Times


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