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Congressman: 110 mph high-speed rail not fast enough

(The following story by Marni Pyke appeared on the Daily Herald website on April 21, 2010.)

CHICAGO — Critics rained turkeys and dogs on the Midwest high speed rail parade at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

The region received about $2.6 billion out of $8 billion in economic stimulus funding to create fast train corridors, including a Chicago to St. Louis route that would travel at speeds of up to 110 mph.

U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida mocked the Chicago plan, saying true high-speed rail in Europe and Asia is 220 mph.

"About 30 percent of the $8 billion came to the Midwest, but none of the projects even approach high speeds," said Mica, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "The worst dog is the Chicago to St. Louis route. You can only put so much parsley around a turkey."

Mica's remarks at a U.S. House Transportation Subcommittee field hearing in Chicago drew sharp rebuttals from his Democrat colleagues, reflecting the partisan divide over the economic stimulus package that the GOP opposed.

"It's reckless to say anything of that nature. It shows a shallow appreciation of a complex issue," said Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat.

Illinois received about $1.2 billion for the Chicago to St. Louis line, with a future extension to Kansas City.

Officials clarified that as trains go through urban areas such as Springfield they'll have to travel at slower speeds but the average speed will be 110 mph.

"Incremental development is the best way to do this," Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Gary Hannig said. "It's not one size fits all."

Speedier trains on the Chicago to St. Louis route should decrease travel times from 5 hours and 20 minutes to 3 hours and 49 minutes.

"It reduces the trip time by one-third," Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, a South suburban native, said. "That's substantive. Reliable, on-time service will attract passengers and attract commercial development."

Putting 220 mph bullet trains between Chicago and St. Louis is much more complicated and expensive than the 110 mph option, others noted. The city is a hub for the national rail system and a center of train gridlock as freights, Amtrak and Metra compete for limited tracks.

Reaching those high speeds would require not only solving the freight congestion problem but require a whole new layer of infrastructure with additional track, grade separation and buffer zones.

"You'd have to rip up parts of downtown and the suburbs," U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a West suburban Democrat, said. Instead, local plans call for using improved existing track to accommodate 110 mph trains. For the Midwest as a whole, 220 mph trains would cause costs to skyrocket from $10 billion up to $105 billion, planners estimate.

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz testified that creating high-speed rail in the region would generate more than $30 billion in economic benefits, create more than 20,000 construction-related jobs, and about 75,000 permanent jobs. "Every dollar spent on this project is expected to yield a return of $1.8," said the Northbrook Democrat, who heads up the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

As for the 220 mph bar, "I'd rather invest something that's achievable," she said. "If the pieces fall into place we could have this up and operating in two to three years."

Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania sided with Mica. "The problem is the money's not focused on areas where you get a true high-speed rail system," he said.

Also appearing at the hearing was Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle who testified about plans to improve service between Milwaukee and Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee and study high-speed rail from Madison to the Twin Cities. Wisconsin received about $823 million in federal funds.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

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