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Did stimulus just give California high-speed rail?

(The following story by John Boitnott appeared at NBCLosAngeles.com on February 12, 2009.)

LOS ANGELES — Suddenly, the state of California may have moved even closer to getting high-speed rail.

The California Public Interest Research group hailed news on Thursday that billions of dollars in President Barack Obama's recently passed stimulus plan could be used to pay for the state's new high-speed rail system.

Congress added $9.3 billion in the American Reinvestment and Economic Recovery Act for development of high-speed rail and other intercity rail throughout the U.S.

The amount was a large increase from the Senate version of the bill and came on top of $8.4 billion already designated for other public transit agencies.

“This bill, especially the money for high speed rail, marks a bold step for 21st century transportation,” said John Krieger, with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “After decades of looking on with envy at efficient bullet trains overseas, American high speed rail is finally leaving the station.”

CALPIRG officials said they cannot yet say just how much of the $9.3 billion will go towards high speed rail in California.

"It cannot be accurately said at this point because the money will go through a competitive grants process, which will be determined by the Federal Transit Administration," said Erin Steva, transportation associate with CALPIRG.

The FTA must make sure that the high-speed rail project is worthy of receiving the money.

"Given the passage of Proposition 1A, I think the state is well positioned to be able to capitalize on this opportunity," Steva said.

Both Democrats, Republicans Supported Public Transportation

The additional high-speed rail funds mark the second time that public transportation has bucked the general trend in the Recovery Act.

When the bill came to the floor of the House, dozens of amendments for additional were all defeated – with the sole exception of a measure to add $3 billion to public transportation.

That amendment passed on a voice vote without opposition and with speeches of support from Republicans.

The money for high-speed rail development and for intercity rail will be spent largely on projects to build and improve tracks, signals, and stations, as well as to make pedestrian, auto and transit crossings safer near corridors.

Some of it will be spent to modernize Amtrak, which has seen six years of record ridership gains.

Californians recently passed a $10 billion ballot measure for a North-South high-speed rail link for trains which will travel over 220 mph.

The project could avoid the need for costly airport and highway expansion and millions of gallons of oil consumption.

The push for rail and other transit comes at a time of record levels of public transportation and Amtrak ridership and growing frustration with airports.

Europe, Japan and China already have thousands of miles of high-speed rail.

Experts have said high-speed rail is a more efficient and time-saving option than airplanes for trips less than 500 miles.

"Funds for transit and other rail will get Americans back to work while reducing dependence on oil and congestion at highways and airports," Krieger said.

Friday, February 13, 2009

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