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U.S. Sec. LaHood wants "czar" to run Midwest high-speed rail bid

(The following appeared on the Chicago Daily Observer website on May 15, 2009.)

CHICAGO — Midwest states need to select a joint "high-speed rail czar" if they are to maximize their chances of getting billions of dollars of available federal funds, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation said on Friday.

At a luncheon and press conference at Chicago's Union League Club, Secretary Ray LaHood suggested that Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states that have been pushing a Midwest high-speed passenger railroad network can do a better job meshing their efforts.

A joint program administrator "is the way you really can coordinate all the states, someone who gets up every morning and all they think about his how to get high-speed rail."

President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package included an unprecedented $8 billion to develop fast railroad corridors. The money is to be parcelled out later this year after a national competition, with Mr. Obama also promising to add an additional $1 billion a year in the future.

Mr. LaHood did not point to any particular short-coming in what Midwestern states are doing, but Indiana is known to be less enthusiastic about 110-mile-per-hour trains than other states, and Mr. LaHood said his department would appreciate having "one person to call" in this part of the country.

Midwest governors have been receptive to his idea so far, and are to meet with him soon in Washington, said Mr. LaHood, a former congressman from the Peoria area.

The secretary would not comment about the recent acquisition of the EJ&E beltline by Canadian National, or on the likelihood that a plan to speed freight rail traffic through Chicago, known as Create, will get the up to $300 million that local officials want.

The stimulus bill included $1.5 billion for projects of national significance, but Mr. LaHood said he would not prejudge the worthiness of any one proposal before reviewing applications for the money later this year.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

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