Transportation secretary: High-speed rail 'long overdue'

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dismissed talk about the economic time not being right, pointing out that many past epic projects came in similar conditions.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dismissed talk about the economic time not being right, pointing out that many past epic projects came in similar conditions.
Posted: July 13, 2012

Comparing bullet trains to grand American achievements of the past, President Obama's transportation chief said benefits of a high-speed rail network would far outweigh the multibillion-dollar costs, and he said political opponents are on the wrong side of history.

"What we're doing is what other generations have done for us," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told international rail executives gathered Wednesday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. He cited the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the transcontinental railroad as similarly transforming American projects of earlier eras.

"And many of those things were done in very tough financial times," LaHood said, rejecting arguments that high-speed rail is too expensive, especially at a time of growing federal deficits.

About 1,000 high-speed rail executives, manufacturers, and transport officials from 37 countries are meeting in the United States for the first time, hoping to boost prospects for fast trains in a country that would provide a vast market for equipment, vehicles, and construction projects.

The eighth World Congress on High-Speed Rail is in Philadelphia "precisely for the purpose of bringing the experience of those who have done it to those who wish to do it," said Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, director-general of the sponsoring International Union of Railways.

Obama has been pushing for a high-speed rail network that could connect 80 percent of Americans to bullet trains by 2035, but Congress has balked at paying for it. Obama was seeking about $8 billion a year for six years to start what could eventually be a $500 billion network.

Much of the efforts are now focused in California, where the state legislature last week approved funding the first leg of a $68 billion, 450-mile high-speed line, and in the Washington-to-Boston corridor, where Amtrak this week proposed a $151 billion plan to construct a high-speed line as part of an upgrade of the entire Northeast corridor.

The lack of U.S. funding was a recurring theme at the conference Wednesday, as international rail experts described the vital role played by their national governments to build high-speed systems.

"It may seem strange to America, but there is something where the private sector cannot achieve all the tasks," said Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, which is developing a Moscow-to-St. Petersburg high-speed line, among others.

Worldwide, there are about 11,000 miles of high-speed rail lines in operation, carrying 1.15 billion passengers a year.

The biggest operators are China (485 million passengers a year), Japan (300 million), and France (125 million).

France's busy Paris-to-Lyon high-speed line carries so many bullet trains each day — 280 — that France is planning to build a new high-speed line next to it, at an estimated cost of $37 billion 30 billion euros.

Despite widespread resistance in Congress and in several states, LaHood insisted Wednesday that the Obama administration is committed to pursuing high-speed rail, with an emphasis on the Northeast corridor and California.

"High-speed rail is not a pipe dream — it's happening all over the world," LaHood said. "Now it has come to America, and it's long overdue."

"We hope our friends in Congress will take their cues from California," LaHood told reporters Wednesday. "… We need enlightened elected officials"” He said voters who support bullet trains should "put people in office who support their ideas — elections make a difference."

Other American officials said the United States will have to take smaller steps toward high-speed rail, incrementally improving existing routes and making better connections to local commuter rail lines.

"The problem is, we're going from the bottom and building up," said Sharon Greene, head of a transportation consultant firm that advises Amtrak on its efforts to upgrade the Northeast corridor. She cited the importance of such "foundation projects" as Amtrak's Gateway Project, a $14.7 billion plan to build new tunnels and bridges to better link New York to North Jersey by 2025.

Amtrak proposes to spend $151 billion over 30 years to gradually improve the Northeast corridor and eventually construct a separate high-speed line to carry 220 m.p.h. trains from Washington to Boston in about three hours, half the time of current Acela Express trains.

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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