Administration rolls out plans for high-speed rail

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 8, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Tuesday accelerated its ambitious plans for high-speed rail, guaranteeing a collision with congressional skeptics.

In a campaign-style rollout applauded by some California officials, Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a six-year, $53 billion plan aimed at boosting high-speed and inter-city rail service nationwide.

The plan includes an $8 billion investment specifically in high-speed rail projects, to be formally proposed in the Obama administration's Fiscal 2012 budget to be released next Monday.

"There are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation, one of which is infrastructure," Biden said.

The plan presented by Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at Philadelphia's 30th Street railroad station does not specify how much money might go to individual states. It also invites opposition from well-placed GOP lawmakers who fear the money may be misspent.

"This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio," declared Rep. John Mica of Florida, the Republican chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Other transportation committee members, including newcomers like Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, have likewise raised questions about whether some of the high-speed rail projects make economic sense.

"I support the concept of a high-speed rail and would like to see it in California," Denham said Tuesday. "However, the project has lacked adequate cost controls, the transparency our farmers deserve and the oversight our taxpayers demand."

More broadly, serious obstacles will confront the overall Fiscal 2012 Obama budget of which high-speed rail funding will only be a small part. The longer-term, six-year rail plan, which includes both high-speed and conventional components, likewise has an uncertain future.

If Congress does give a green light to funding, though, California is one certain recipient.

The Obama administration has already delivered more than $3.2 billion to California for high-speed rail work. The initial focus is a rural, high-speed route connecting Corcoran to a site near Madera in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

In time, proponents want to build an 800-mile, high-speed system connecting Los Angeles with the San Francisco Bay Area. Once environmental studies are done, construction on the initial San Joaquin Valley phase is supposed to begin next year and conclude by 2017.

"I think this is a very good message," Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer of California's High Speed Rail Authority, said of the administration's new plan. "For California to build a high-speed rail system, you need to have a long-term vision."

Van Ark attended the Philadelphia event, where he said in a telephone interview that he was able to speak with both Biden and LaHood about California's progress. He estimated said California might seek upwards of $1.8 billion a year in federal high-speed rail funds.

Van Ark also contended that key congressional Republicans might be more sympathetic to California's high-speed rail program than to some less well-developed programs in other states. He called Mica "very supportive of the concept" of a well-justified high-speed rail system, though an East Coast snowstorm interfered with van Ark's hopes for a recent Capitol Hill meeting with the powerful committee chairman.

The Californians will continue to press their case, through both formal and informal channels. Last year, California's High Speed Rail Authority reported spending a little over $110,000 for lobbying help in Washington, records show.

The Obama plan identifies three types of rail projects in which the federal government might invest: "core express" tracks where electrified trains will travel between 125 and 250 miles per hour, "regional" systems with trains traveling between 90 and 125 miles per hour and "emerging" systems, with trains traveling up to 90 miles per hour.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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