- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2008

UPDATED EXCLUSIVE:

Congressional transportation leaders plan to announce today that the federal government is seeking contractors to build a new $30 billion to $40 billion high-speed rail line between Washington and New York that would be used exclusively by passenger trains.

Amtrak’s current Northeast Corridor rail line is shared with freight and commuter trains, which can significantly increase the length of time it takes for passengers to arrive at their destinations.

The rail line for which Congress seeks contractors is the first of a series of nationwide high-speed passenger rail lines the government is considering funding, according to a congressional aide.

“That’s what we’re pushing for,” said the congressional aide, who asked not to be identified.

Others would run the length of California and Florida, spread throughout the Midwest with a hub in Chicago, connect Portland, Ore., with Seattle, and run between major cities in Texas.

Amtrak officials have responded to complaints from Congress for years that they are hampered in improving passenger service by train-scheduling conflicts on rail lines they share with commuter and freight railroads.

Plans for the rail line are part of a request for proposals the U.S. Transportation Department is announcing today that seek contractors to build the system.

It was authorized under the Rail Improvement Safety Act that Congress approved in October. That legislation also funds subsidies for Amtrak and other railroads for the next five years.

The legislation would provide $13.06 billion to help bring the Northeast Corridor rail infrastructure to a state of good repair. It also provides $1.5 billion for the planning and development of high-speed rail corridors in other parts of the nation. The legislation requires operational reforms for Amtrak, such as measures to improve on-time performance and the appointment of a new board of directors.

The new rail line would carry passengers between Washington and New York in no more than two hours, compared with nearly three hours now on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela trains. Slower Amtrak trains can take as long as four hours for the trip.

Construction on the rail line could be years away, according to the congressional aide.

“Congress still has to vote to fund it,” he said.

Amtrak officials described the Transportation Department’s request for proposals today as a significant step in getting the high-speed rail lines built exclusively for passenger service.

“It is a milestone to the extent that there is specific legislation requesting statements of interest from the private sector,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said.

However, he said civil engineers face significant obstacles, such as figuring out where to put the rail line when urban development and natural barriers lie in its path. He mentioned downtown tunnels in Baltimore that are more than a century old and the Hudson River, which borders New York’s Manhattan Island on the west.

“Those need to be dealt with,” Mr. Black said. “They are major capital projects, both of them costing presumably in the billions of dollars.”

A new rail line appears to be the kind of project supported by President-elect Barack Obama in his economic stimulus plan. The plan calls for heavy government investment in infrastructure projects, particularly if they are environmentally friendly.

Amtrak officials say passenger rail reduces automobile traffic congestion by providing an incentive for motorists to use mass transit and lessens fuel consumption.

A spokesman for Mr. Obama said the president-elect would withhold comment on the Amtrak project until after he assumes office Jan. 20.

“We’re strongly sticking to the one-president-at-a-time rule,” Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro said.

The rail project already has support in Congress among both Republicans and Democrats, said Mary Kerr, spokeswoman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“That has bipartisan support,” Ms. Kerr said.

However, even passenger-rail advocates cautioned against assumptions that a new Northeast Corridor line is certain to be built.

Considering the multibillion-dollar price tag and engineering obstacles, “I’m not sure that makes it a doable thing,” said Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a passenger rail advocacy group. “I think we’re still a few years away before you would get to moving beyond proposals.”

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