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High-speed rail: Biden praises Midwest plan to enhance passenger train system

(The following story by Mike Dorning and Jon Hilkevitch appeared on the Chicago Tribune June 4, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Obama administration officials offered encouraging signs Wednesday that a proposed Midwest high-speed rail network based around a Chicago hub has an inside track on a significant piece of $8 billion to be distributed among 10 major U.S. projects.

Vice President Joe Biden lauded the Midwest proposal, which envisions passenger trains speeding through the region at 110 m.p.h., as "one of the most comprehensive plans that have been put forward so far."

The full 3,000-mile Midwest corridor system stretching over nine states would cost $9.6 billion to construct over 10 years, according to the latest estimate.

But "for $3.4 billion, you can get a big chunk of this plan done," Biden said in a conference call with reporters.

The administration gathered eight governors, including Gov. Pat Quinn, for a roundtable at the White House on Wednesday. Interviewed at the White House afterward, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, noted that Obama and his chief of staff, Chicagoan Rahm Emanuel, have taken an intense interest in the rail initiative. He suggested that that would work in favor of substantial financial support for a Midwest network.

Obama and Emanuel made funding for high-speed rail a priority in negotiations over the economic stimulus package. In addition to the $8 billion secured in the economic stimulus, the White House has asked for another $5 billion over the next five years.

"This is the president's initiative," LaHood said. "I mean he and Rahm personally saw to it that Congress included $8 billion for high-speed rail. And I don't want to answer to the president why we're not doing something in the Midwest."

According to transportation experts, the Midwest bid also will merit support because of Chicago's central role in the nation's rail and other transportation networks.

"Based on the conversations I had with the governors today, I think [the Midwest] will have as good a proposal as any that we will receive," LaHood said. "Everyone will have a reasonable chance."

At a meeting earlier in the day to strategize on funding with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Quinn announced plans for a July summit of Midwest governors to address high-speed rail in Chicago. He said he and the other governors will coordinate plans and try to muster enthusiasm among mayors, members of Congress and business.

"The point is, the more people who are invested in this, the better," Quinn said. He added that a successful Olympic bid for Chicago could add political immediacy to the regional project.

Regardless of how much money the Midwest project receives in the first round of funding, the initial phase of work in and around Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit would concentrate on eliminating slow zones, where Amtrak passenger trains often travel as slow as 10 m.p.h. because of freight train interference and antiquated tracks and signals.

The goal would be to increase those speeds to 30 to 50 m.p.h. initially and faster later, operating in accordance with the philosophy of rail experts that the key to going fast is to not go slow.

The Federal Railroad Administration will issue guidelines for applications by June 17, and Biden said grants will start rolling this summer.

The first category of grants will focus on improving existing rail systems and putting people to work under the economic recovery plan, the vice president said. The strategy appears to benefit the Midwest proposal.

The second round will go toward building sections of corridors and aiding high-speed rail programs such as California's plan, which will feature trains moving at up to 220 m.p.h. between Sacramento and San Diego.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

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