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Stimulus barely gets rail out of the station

Joan Lowy
AP Writer

Washington — Communities and companies seeking to build high-speed rail systems haven’t yet received the $8 billion in stimulus money the Obama administration promised. But those communities and communities already want more — a lot more.

The consensus at a conference in Washington for high-speed rail proponents was the federal government should ante up substantially more to demonstrate the long-term financial commitment to make the projects viable.

The U.S. High Speed Rail Association is promoting a plan for a 17,000-mile, national network of 220 mph bullet trains — a wish list of every potentially credible project. The estimated price tag: $600 billion over 20 years.

That’s a lot of money, said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who spoke at the conference. By the time a national network gets built, “I think it’s going to be that much,” Johnson said.

At least $150 billion is needed for a serious start on a national high-speed rail network, said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a rail proponent. Then he added: “We’re probably talking about more than that.”

The entire $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail included in the economic stimulus program enacted by Congress earlier this year is only a third of the cost of constructing a single high-speed line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh — an estimated $20 billion to $25 billion, Rendell said.

“We haven’t yet made a serious commitment to high-speed rail,” said Rendell, who has joined with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to form Building America’s Future to promote rail and other transportation projects.

The inclusion of the rail money in the stimulus bill sparked fierce competition among state officials, many of whom have long thirsted for speedy bullet trains like those in Europe and Japan. The Obama administration initially wanted to begin awarding some of the $8 billion in September, but that timetable has been pushed back to later this year or early next.

The Federal Railroad Administration has received applications from 24 states seeking $50 billion for high-speed projects, more than six times the available money.

The agency also received 214 applications from 34 states seeking a total of $7 billion to beef up train service between cities. Those projects also are eligible for a share of the $8 billion.

Administration officials continue to talk up their vision of a rail renaissance, describing the $8 billion as a down payment. They also have been trying to downplay expectations, given the likelihood most states could go away empty-handed.

Joseph Szabo, Federal Railroad Administration administrator, said state interest in the high-speed rail program “far exceeds the funds available today, or next year or over the next five years.”

Officials for companies that want to build the rail systems or supply the trains said they worry the administration will bend to pressure to spread the money around instead of concentrating it on a single project or two or three projects.

It’s important to get at least a small section of one project up and running to build public support for more, said Tadashi Keneko, a representative of the Japan International Transportation Institute, which works with Japanese rail companies eager to enter the U.S. market.

In addition to the $8 billion, the White House requested Congress approve another $1 billion a year for the next five years for high-speed rail. The House went further, proposing $4 billion for next year, but the Senate has approved only $1.5 billion.

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