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Phoenix, not on bullet-train map, wants onboard

(The following story by Sean Holstege appeared on The Arizona Republic website on October 8, 2009.)

PHOENIX, Ariz. — When Phoenix-area transportation leader Dennis Smith first saw a map depicting the nation's high-speed rail strategy, he immediately noticed what he called "a gaping hole in the intermountain West."

So did regional and rail planners in Denver, Las Vegas, Reno and Salt Lake City.

On Monday, Smith and those planners met in Phoenix as the Western High Speed Rail Alliance, a new group whose aim is to develop a network of rapid intercity trains. They were keenly aware that $8 billion in economic-stimulus money is being steered to other regions.

"If you don't have a line on the map, you're nowhere," said Smith, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments. "This is about: How does the fastest-growing region get politically aligned?"

Two new independent studies will give Phoenix more credentials to make its case.

Today, the Brookings Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., releases an airport-congestion study in which researchers found that Phoenix to Los Angeles is the third-busiest short-hop travel corridor, with a distance that would make high-speed rail competitive.

Independently, a research group called America 2050 released a report last month evaluating which high-speed rail routes made sense. The organization looked at populations, densities, economies, transit networks, and air and highway congestion of U.S. cities. Among 27,000 city pairs, Phoenix to Los Angeles ranked 15th.

That's higher than the Los Angeles-to-Vegas run and several others included on federal planning maps. Phoenix to San Diego ranked 22nd.

A typical high-speed train, common in Europe and Asia, would get you from downtown Phoenix to the heart of Los Angeles in just over two hours.

A high-speed rail system in the U.S. is many years from reality. And not everyone is enamored of fast trains.

Some fiscal conservatives argue the country cannot afford the multibillion-dollar price tag. Others are deeply skeptical of subsidizing rail, after supporting Amtrak for years.

Some urban planners say comparisons with Europe and China are unfair. Europe has higher gas prices and shorter distances, and its development pattern is more conducive to trains. China has vast populations that support rail demand.

Recently, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser opined that the costs for a high-speed rail route between Dallas and Houston, two of the bigger cities, outweigh the economic benefits. And Americans still love cars.

The case for fast rail

The convenience and short travel times of high-speed rail have made the technology attractive elsewhere in the world. The United States is barely out of the blocks in a catch-up race.

No true high-speed system exists in the United States, where current trains must operate with a 79-mph speed limit on existing tracks. An exception is the Boston-New York-Washington Acela Corridor, on which trains are capable of reaching 150 mph. They rarely top 100 mph, however.

The U.S. government defines high-speed rail as an intercity system on which trains routinely travel faster than 125 mph. Such systems are designed for business travelers and tourists making trips of 200 to 500 miles.

California is farthest along in developing such a system. Planning for an 800-mile network has gone on for years, and last year, voters approved a $10 billion bond to begin work on a starter line between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

By comparison, Japan opened its first bullet-train line in the 1960s, followed by France about 15 years later.

Until 2004, China had the smallest system, but today boasts the largest one, with more high-speed track than Europe. It also features the fastest trains in the world and is investing $300 billion to add 16,000 miles by 2020.

The Obama administration has called its rail initiative a matter of economic competitiveness.

Las Vegas-based transportation consultant Tom Skancke is one of many national experts and advisers who agree.

"If the U.S. doesn't invest in high-speed rail, we will not maintain our global competitiveness. Air and highway capacity are maxed out. This needs to be a national system, just like the interstate," said Skancke, echoing a finding of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, on which he sat until last year.

Political clout a key

The United States has a collection of proposed regional networks.

California's system is the leading contender for a chunk of stimulus cash, but networks envisioned around Chicago and the Northeast also stand a good chance of being funded. Those areas are on the U.S. Department of Transportation's short list and are rated highly by America 2050.

Competition among regions is fierce. In July, 40 states, including Arizona, applied for high-speed rail grants, totaling $105 billion in requests, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The requests are most likely to be considered when Congress renews the federal transportation bill. The Obama administration has pledged an additional $1 billion a year to jump-start high-speed rail planning. Future appropriations are the likely target for most states, including those in the West seeking money.

As the nation lags Asian and European competitors, Phoenix and its partners fear falling behind the rest of the country.

"They need to plan now for the next 50 years or be left out," said Skancke, who is administering the new alliance.

Under their charter, the Western regions each contributes $60,000 a year to the effort. The money will pay for studies and plans in an effort to "promote the expansion of the high-speed rail system throughout the intermountain West regions with the connections to the Pacific Coast."

"We are a confederation of bigger cities," Smith said. "The goal is to get study money."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

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