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Midwest governors push for high-speed rail network

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Michael Tarm on July 27, 2009.)

CHICAGO — Midwest governors met in Chicago on Monday in a show of unity as they push for an eight-state, high-speed rail network — agreeing to set up a group that will coordinate the states' bid for a share of $8 billion in federal stimulus cash for such projects.

The one-day gathering, billed as a Midwest High Speed Rail Summit, otherwise offered few new details, including how much it could cost to build the system that would connect 12 metropolitan areas with Chicago as its hub.

Governors from eight states —Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio — had already pledged to work together to build the network, saying it would help reduce road congestion and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

A memorandum signed Monday in Chicago by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and four other governors sets up the Midwest Rail Steering Group, which will coordinate applications and lobbying for federal stimulus money.

In addition to Quinn, Govs. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Chet Culver of Iowa, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Ted Strickland of Ohio also attended, as did Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

The governors of Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana signed the memorandum earlier and did not attend the gathering.

The document does not include a price tag for the Midwest network, though some estimates say it will cost at least $10 billion. At a news conference in Chicago, governors also couldn't say just how big a slice of the federal stimulus pie they hoped to receive.

"We'd like all $8 billion" of the available stimulus funds, Doyle joked. Wisconsin's governor added that up to $19 billion in federal money from other sources could also be made available over the next several years.

Some have criticized the governors for being unclear about costs.

"They don't want the price tag out there when everyone's talking fiscal restraint," said John Tillman, head of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. After costs of construction, Tillman said, operating expenses could soar into the billions of dollars over several years.

Tillman also raised doubts about whether any such network would reduce either road congestion or emissions, saying it's not clear whether enough drivers would abandon their cars for high-speed trains.

Competition for a slice of the federal stimulus money will be stiff.

The Midwest plan and a high-speed rail plan from California appear to be among the front-runners for stimulus cash, but 40 states have submitted 278 plans totaling $102 billion for federal rail funding, officials have said.

The Midwest project foresees an initial push to upgrade three routes: Chicago-St. Louis; Chicago-Madison, Wis., via Milwaukee; and Chicago-Pontiac, Mich., through Detroit. Work would extend later to other lines, including St. Louis-Kansas City, Mo. The upgrades would enable trains to travel up to 110 mph; currently, the top speed of trains is usually under 80 mph.

The project, which could take 10 to 20 years to complete, would create 15,000 construction jobs and 57,000 permanent jobs, Granholm said.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

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