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FRA’s Szabo hopeful for $8 billion in stimulus spending

(Dow Jones Newswires circulated the following story by Ann Keeton on November 2, 2009.)

EVANSTON, Ill. — The Federal Railroad Administration will award $8 billion in stimulus money to develop high-speed-passenger-rail service to various state applicants this winter, "hopefully in January," Joseph Szabo, administrator of the U.S. railroad oversight agency said following a presentation Monday.

Speaking at a Northwestern University symposium on transportation policy, Szabo said the number of requests for stimulus funds has far exceeded his expectations. The agency had planned to divvy up the money in October, but "the fact of the matter is, this is a transformational time for passenger rail. We're taking a few more months to make sure the $8 billion is clearly invested in the right places."

In an interview with Dow Jones Newswires, Szabo said he expects the traveling public, railroads and other transportation industries to get onboard with new passenger-rail initiatives, as they will bring needed balance to the U.S. transportation system. For example, high-speed rail lines will allow airlines to focus on more lucrative long routes. "In small communities, where air service is subsidized by the government, they don't really need air service. What they need is reliable transportation."

Reliability is key to the success of new passenger-rail service, Szabo said. "We want to pick projects that will be successful; success breeds success."

Speaking earlier, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the success of U.S. high-speed rail will depend on public/private partnerships with railroad freight carriers as well as assistance from experts in Europe and Asia, where high-speed-rail service is commonplace. "There is no definition of high-speed rail," he said, since train systems operate in many different situations. In Spain, trains can travel at 250 miles an hour, but some U.S. proposals are for trains to travel just 110 miles an hour.

LaHood told Dow Jones that the $8 billion allocated so far is a good beginning, but he expects the Obama administration to support ongoing passenger rail projects that could bring major changes to the U.S. in the next 10 to 15 years. He said states have requested stimulus money for a total of $57 billion of projects.

A broad transportation bill still needs to be addressed in the U.S. Senate, but that won't happen until next year, when discussions on health-care legislation are over.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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