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U.S. readies plans for high-speed rail development

(Reuters circulated the following story by Lisa Lambert and John Crawley on April 14, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. The Obama administration is expected to unveil its plans on Thursday for accelerating development of high-speed rail, a concept that in the past has had mixed political support and little public funding.

"It will be broad and strategic," Karen Rae, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday about the initiative described by officials as President Barack Obama's top transportation priority.

"It's going to talk about how we begin to create this new vision for high-speed and intercity rail," Rae said.

White House and transportation officials have spent the past several weeks weighing plans for developing at least six high-speed corridors.

High-speed rail initiatives are in various planning stages in California, Florida, Nevada, the Carolinas and the Northeast. States are already formulating how to use the large appropriation for high-speed rail projects in the economic stimulus act.

"Some of these plans are 20 years old," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in an interview this week with Reuters Financial Television.

In February, Congress included $8 billion for rail development in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Obama has included another $5 billion for the efforts in the White House's proposed budget.

LaHood said the $8 billion in stimulus money will "jump-start" the process, but rail advocates and transportation officials agree that financing high-speed rail nationally will cost significantly more.

The plan to be released on Thursday is required by the stimulus act, but Rae said it will "reference the broader rail agenda that is out there."

Rae said she hopes her agency beats the next deadline set by the act on June 17 to provide guidance on how the competitive grants in the stimulus bill will be evaluated.

Government financing for passenger rail has been a contentious political issue for years although supporters have long touted its popularity in Europe and Asia. The U.S. government defines high-speed rail as "intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour."

Supporters of Amtrak, the country's heavily subsidized and only long-haul passenger rail service, fought bitter political battles with the Bush administration to keep the network running nationally. Now, Amtrak and passenger rail advocates have powerful new allies in the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers heading up key committees.

Midwestern governors recently wrote Secretary LaHood asking for $3.4 billion of the funding to build up high-speed rail corridors in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"I believe Missouri and the other states in our region present a compelling and united case to the Obama Administration to fund these projects," Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement on Tuesday.

"Our states have been working on this rail initiative for more than a decade, and we will aggressively compete for these Recovery Act funds specifically designated for high-speed rail projects," he added.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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