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LaHood sees bright future for high-speed trains in U.S.

(The following story by Paul Nussbaum appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on August 11, 2010.)

SUMMERDALE, Pa. — New high-speed trains will link 80 percent of Americans within 25 years, at a cost of about $500 billion, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday.

LaHood, who is leading the Obama administration's push to create an American network of trains that can travel at least 160 miles an hour, said that the government and private companies would foot the bill, but that he did not know where money would come from.

LaHood made his remarks, via satellite video link from Washington, to a gathering of business and political leaders at Central Pennsylvania College in Cumberland County.

Gov. Rendell, hosting the conference, suggested that some of the billions now being spent on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might better be used on high-speed rail.

"We'd have a lot of money to do a lot of things," said Rendell.

To address the issue of the nation's troubled highways, bridges, railroads, and other infrastructure, Rendell hosted a panel that included former New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine, former U.S. House Democratic Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, laborers' union president Terence M. O'Sullivan, and Google's Pittsburgh office director, Andrew Moore.

The panel members agreed that the United States needed to spend more - much more - on rebuilding and improving the country's underpinnings. And they said most Americans were prepared to pay more. But they diverged on where the money was likely to come from.

To suggestions of an increased federal gas tax to help pay for repairs and new construction, Gephardt, now a Washington lobbyist, said: "The chance of a gas tax [increase] is less than zero."

He and Corzine advocated an "infrastructure bank" that could enable the federal government to borrow money for projects and pay them off over years - similar to the way states fund their long-term projects.

O'Sullivan, whose members in the Laborers' International Union of North America hope new construction will mean thousands of jobs, said: "We are skeptical that we can do what needs to be done without a gas tax" increase.

The union has launched a nationwide campaign to urge local lawmakers to replace old bridges. He said 27 percent of the country's bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

"We have to put our money where our mouth is . . . and make sure we don't have a third-world infrastructure 20 years from now," O'Sullivan said.

William M. Stout, chief executive of Gannett Fleming Inc., an international planning and construction-management firm, said a "silent majority" of Americans were willing "to pay a little more when we fill our gas tanks and a little more when we pay our taxes" for better highways, water and sewer lines, and other infrastructure.

Moore called for more spending on fiber-optic cable and broadband capabilities to allow Americans to keep pace with foreign competitors in computer-based businesses.

Rendell - who in 2008 cofounded with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg an organization called Building America's Future to push for infrastructure improvements - said Tuesday: "Sometimes you spend money to save money and make money."

"We have to wake up the American people to the challenge," Rendell said.

On the issue of high-speed rail, LaHood noted that the Obama administration provided $8 billion in federal stimulus funds to jump-start a national push to build high-speed corridors around the country. He said that an additional $2.5 billion would be spent this year and that Obama had requested $1 billion more for next year.

Americans are clamoring for the kind of high-speed trains that operate in Europe, Japan, China, and elsewhere, LaHood said.

"People who go to Europe and Asia say, 'Why don't we have it?'," he said.

"In less time than it took to create the interstate highway system, you'll start to see high-speed rail in this country," LaHood said.

He acknowledged that funding would be an issue, but said: "When we started the interstate highway system, we didn't know where all the money was coming from."

The federal gas tax paid for most of the interstate system, begun more than 50 years ago. And some rail advocates have urged using gas-tax proceeds to help pay for high-speed rail, on the grounds that trains will remove travelers from the nation's congested highways.

Opponents of the proposal argue that revenue from gas taxes, paid by vehicle drivers, should be dedicated to roads.

LaHood said funding for infrastructure improvements likely would come from a combination of taxes, tolls, private-public investment, and borrowed money.

LaHood's agency earlier this year rejected Pennsylvania's request to put tolls on I-80 as a way to raise money for statewide highway, bridge, and transit projects.

That has left the state with a $472 million hole in its transportation budget, and Rendell has called a special session of the state legislature to come up with ways to fill the void.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

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