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Congress Eyes a Rocket Train To Washington

New York Run Would Take Two Hours

(The following story by Peter Kiefer appeared on the New York Sun website on May 28.)

A two-hour rocket train between New York and Washington is the goal of new legislation that cleared a key hurdle in Congress last week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Mayor Bloomberg is scheduled to meet with one of the sponsors of the legislation, Rep. John Mica, a Republican of Florida, on Friday to discuss a proposal that would create an American equivalent of Japan's Shinkansen and France's TGV bullet trains, which can travel at speeds of more than 300 miles an hour. The mayor in recent months has been promoting the idea of increased federal investment in infrastructure.

"We're interested in hearing from the congressman on the idea," a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, Andrew Brent, said.

If passed, the legislation would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to solicit requests for proposals from private developers to create a two-hour "door-to-door" high-speed rail service.

Rep. Michael Castle, a Republican of Delaware who co-authored the legislation, said gaining the support of Mr. Mica, the ranking Republican on the transportation panel, was key.

"I think he understands the congestion we have in the corridor. There are a number of concerns here and he realizes that Amtrak can't resolve the problem," he said.

Mr. Castle said the surging price of gasoline and the increased hassle associated with air travel make it ideal timing for a high-speed train alternative.

"If you can get it to two hours, or even close to that, you are going to see that many more people shifting to this usage. There is just an enormous amount of traffic out there," he said. The legislation calls for an appropriation of $14 billion over five years.

The idea of creating a high-speed rail service that connects New York and Washington goes back decades, with the Senator Moynihan serving as its most stalwart proponent.

"It's a little late in the game, but we need it," the chairman of the political science department at Touro College, David Luchins, a longtime adviser to Senator Moynihan, said yesterday in an interview. "It's important because of the cost of oil, its important because of the environment, and it would be great for the economy I see no downside. It is the most economically sound way to move people from New York to Washington."

Mr. Luchins also said that the job of generating political support could be eased by the disgruntlement of lawmakers who must deal with the rigors of shuttling between New York and Washington.

"The senator used to say you get one less day in purgatory for every day you have to spend on the shuttle," Mr. Luchins said.

The Bush administration has shown little interest in supporting the creation of an entirely new high-speed rail link, opting instead to make $30 million of federal funds available to support intercity passenger rail services in a matching federal-state funds program.

"The European style high speed train projects envisioned under this program could be very costly to build," the transportation department said in a letter sent to lawmakers earlier this month. "It is not evident that this level of spending would be a reasonable use of scarce taxpayer resources particularly given the documented needs of the nation's existing transportation system."

One unresolved element of the legislation is the role of Amtrak. America's federally subsidized coast-to-coast passenger railroad has fallen on hard times. In 2005, it was nearly forced into bankruptcy when the Bush administration threatened to eliminate the $1.2 billion subsidy to Amtrak, and the system is consistently plagued by delays.

Both Japan's Shinkansen and France's TGV are state run.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn and is a member of the transportation panel, is not listed as a co-sponsor of the bill and was unavailable for comment yesterday.

The Acela service, launched in 1999, is currently the closest thing Amtrak offers to a high-speed train. The Acela trains that operate between Washington and Boston via Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York can hit 150 miles an hour over some stretches between New York and Washington. The New York-Washington leg is scheduled to take two hours and 45 minutes.

A spokesman for Mr. Mica, Justin Harclerode, said Amtrak could participate but that the congressman envisions creating high-speed service that would be independent of existing commuter and freight lines, which would likely require new tunnels and ridding existing tracks of curves to facilitate speed.

"Let's throw it out there and see if we get some good proposals and see if they work," Mr. Harclerode said.

A professor of civil engineering at the University of Delaware, Arnold Kerr, said the idea of creating entirely new tracks to service a high-speed train did not make financial sense. Mr. Kerr said existing infrastructure could support a high-train.

"The question is how do they plan to finance it and how do they plan to run it and what will be the role of Amtrak? You cannot build a high-speed line out of nothing, they have the knowhow and the expertise so they have to be tied in."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

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