- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Federal transportation leaders announced Monday that the government is seeking contractors to build a $30 billion to $40 billion high-speed rail line between Washington and New York that would be used exclusively by passenger trains.

The line is the first of a series of nationwide high-speed passenger rail lines that the government is considering funding. Other rail lines 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.

“This is the most exciting development in U.S. passenger rail in years,” Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said during a press conference at Washington’s Union Station.

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. Trips on slower Amtrak trains can take as long as four hours.

Amtrak shares its current Northeast Corridor rail line with freight and commuter trains, which can significantly increase the time it takes for passengers to arrive at their destinations.

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,” said Cliff Black, an Amtrak spokesman.

However, he said, 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 around New York City’s Manhattan Island.

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

Plans for the rail line are part of a request for proposals to the U.S. Transportation Department that seeks contractors to build the system. It was authorized under the Rail Improvement Safety Act Congress approved in October that 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.

A new rail line appears to be the kind of project that President-elect Barack Obama supports as part of 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,” said Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for Mr. Obama.

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

However, even passenger rail advocates cautioned against assumptions 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.”

Before the press conference in Washington with top local and federal transportation officials, another press conference was held in New York that included New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

“If the U.S. is to remain economically competitive with our economic competitors, we must develop high-speed transportation service for our great cities, just as they have for theirs,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

• Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.