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Biden: High-speed rail money on the way

(The following story by Aubrey Cohen appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website on June 3, 2009.)

SEATTLE, Wash. — Obama administration officials are considering creating a nationwide bond program to fund high-speed rail lines, Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday.

"We're investigating whether we need a dedicated national capital improvement program, where we have bonds dedicated to high-speed rail," Biden said on a conference call with reporters to discuss high-speed rail.

The $8 billion Congress allocated for high-speed rail in this year's stimulus package is just a "down payment," he said. "We do know $8 billion is not going to put in place an entire high-speed rail system in America, but it's 8 billion times more than we had prior to the recovery act. In addition to that we have another $5 billion we're seeking over the next several years, and we think this can help us jump start a commitment to high-speed rail in the country that can transform and rebalance our transportation network."

The Amtrak Cascades run between Vancouver, B.C., and Eugene, Ore., is one of 10 corridors the federal government has identified for potential high-speed rail projects. The existing Amtrak Acela Express route, between Boston and Washington, D.C., also is eligible for high-speed rail money.

Building true high-speed rail just on Amtrak Cascades "would take up all the (stimulus) money," Biden acknowledged.

He noted that many states, including Washington, have put "skin in the game," allocating money to high-speed rail, and he suggested a national bond program could move the federal share past the down-payment stage.

"We're just beginning this," he said. "Let me remind you, the interstate highway system started the same way."

At a rail forum in Seattle last week, Cascadia Project rail fellow Ray Chambers stressed the importance of finding a dedicated federal funding source for high-speed rail as part of this year's reauthorization of the federal transportation act.

Rail will fail if it depends on fighting with highways for a share of federal gas taxes, he said. "The traditional sources are going to absorb that money and we won't see any of it."

On Wednesday, Biden said the country needs to "rebalance" its transportation spending, noting that highways get "hundreds of billions of dollars a year out of federal revenue."

Biden, a former Delaware senator, has logged, by his count, nearly 8,000 round trips on the Acela Express, which goes as fast as 150 mph.

"This has sort of been a hobbyhorse of mine for the past 25 years," he said, touting high-speed rail as a way to cut congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions, with line construction boosting employment.

While getting European- and Asian-style trains that travel more than 200 mph would require laying down entirely new track lines, improvements to existing lines could increase speeds to 110 mph on routes such as the Amtrak Cascades and the run between Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. That could make a big difference on ridership, Biden said, speaking specifically about the Virginia route.

As for that $8 billion, Biden said officials expect to have all the applications in by June 17 and start awarding money by the end of the summer.

"We want to get shovel-ready projects as quickly as possible that at a minimum significantly enhance ridership and take people off the highways," he said. "The next round will include proposals for comprehensive high-speed programs covering entire corridors or sections of corridors."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

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