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States to compete for high-speed rail funds

(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on April 17, 2009.)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. President Obama's vision for high-speed rail, officially unveiled Thursday, looks an awful lot like what's being planned in California.

"Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city," he said, sounding a bit like an ad for the high-speed rail bond measure California voters approved in November. "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America."

But now that the president has anointed high-speed rail a top priority - and affirmed his intent to spend $13 billion to build a collection of fast train systems - California is sure to face fierce competition for federal funding.

The state plans to build a network that would start with a line at the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco, travel to San Jose, down the Central Valley, to Los Angeles and Anaheim. The trip would take 2 1/2 hours aboard trains that travel up to 220 mph. Extensions to Sacramento and San Diego would be built later.

California appears to have an advantage in obtaining federal funding. It has $9.9 billion in funding approved by voters and a designated route, and it has completed some environmental studies. Obama specifically mentioned California's project in his speech, and two California High Speed Rail Authority board members, Rod Diridon and David Crane, were invited to Washington for Obama's announcement.

"We're in the forefront of building a high-speed train, and we are way out in front of everybody else," said Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

But Emily Rusch, a transportation advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group, cautioned against complacency.

"There are a lot of states out there that want to build high-speed rail networks," she said.

California's competition includes: Pacific Northwest Corridor: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, British Columbia; South Central Corridor: Tulsa, Okla., Oklahoma City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock, Ark.; Gulf Coast Corridor: Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta; Chicago Hub Network: Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky.; Florida Corridor: Orlando, Tampa, Miami; Southeast Corridor: Washington, Raleigh, Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Jacksonville, Fla.; Keystone Corridor: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh; Empire Corridor: New York, Albany, Buffalo; Northern New England Corridor: Boston, Montreal, Springfield, New Haven, Conn., Albany.

Amtrak's busy Northeast Corridor - from Washington to Boston - also would be eligible for funding. The route has the nation's fastest train, traveling up to 150 mph.

Obama called for expeditious construction of a high-speed train network - consisting of a series of regional systems 100 to 600 miles in length - as a way to rebuild the country. A fast train network, he said, would cut congestion on highways and at airports, reduce pollution and decrease reliance on foreign oil. It also would create jobs and opportunities for better urban and rural growth.

"This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now," the president said.

Quentin Kopp, who heads the High Speed Rail Authority, called the president's speech "stunningly encouraging" and said it "recognized California's leadership in implementing high-speed rail."

Building California's high-speed-train network from San Francisco-to-Los Angeles and Anaheim will cost from $32.8 billion to $33.6 billion, according to the authority's business report. The agency is counting on $12 billion to $16 billion in federal funds plus $6.5 billion to $7.5 billion in private investment and $2 billion to $3 billion in local contributions.

Obama's plan would fund three types of projects: those ready to begin construction, those with some planning but needing additional study to break ground, and development of plans for high-speed rail corridors.

Morshed acknowledged heightened interest in high-speed rail now that Obama has put billions of dollars behind his vision. But he insisted the state is ready and has projects that qualify for each category of funding.

"We think we can compete very well," he said.

Friday, April 17, 2009

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