- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

High-speed rail projects in California, Florida and Illinois were among the big winners of $8 billion in grants announced Thursday by the White House - the start of what some Democrats tout as a national rail-building program that could rival the interstate highways begun in the Eisenhower era.

President Obama announced the awards during a town-hall meeting in Tampa, Fla. Thirteen passenger rail corridors in 31 states will receive grants, which are funded by the economic recovery act enacted last year.

“It creates jobs immediately, and it lays the foundation for a vibrant economy in the future,” Mr. Obama said.

But skeptics noted that much of the new money will go to foreign countries that specialize in building and equipping the high-speed trains and that the spending is unlikely to make a major dent in U.S. jobless rates.

“If you are concerned about dropping the unemployment rate from 10 percent to 5 percent, then this isn’t going to do it. It will help, but it’s not going to solve the problem,” said University of Denver professor Andrew Goetz, an expert on transportation policy and economic geography.

And though the administration bills the program as “high-speed rail,” most U.S. projects won’t reach the speeds seen in Europe and Asia. California’s trains would be by far the fastest, exceeding the 200 mph achieved by some trains overseas.

Some of the money will go toward trains with top speeds of 110 mph, while other funds - such as the $400 million allotted to Ohio to connect Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati - will be for trains traveling no faster than 79 mph.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and members of Congress have acknowledged they expect much of the expertise and equipment to be supplied by foreign companies. Except for Amtrak’s Acela line between Boston and Washington, there are no high-speed trains in the U.S. and no domestic high-speed rail industry.

The $8 billion investment is just a start. Last year, the president asked Congress in his budget request for an additional $1 billion a year for five years. Congress for this year approved another $2.5 billion that remains to be awarded. And Mr. Obama is expected to ask for yet more rail funds when his budget is presented next week.

Projects awarded the largest grants include:

c California: $2.3 billion to begin work on an 800-mile-long, high-speed rail line tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego.

c Florida: $1.25 billion to build a rail line connecting Tampa on the West Coast with Orlando in the middle of the state, eventually going south to Miami.

c Illinois-Missouri: $1.1 billion to improve a rail line between Chicago and St. Louis so that trains travel up to 110 mph.

c Wisconsin: $810 million to upgrade and refurbish train stations and install safety equipment on the Madison-to-Milwaukee leg of a line that stretches from Minneapolis to Chicago.

By spreading the $8 billion among so many states, Mr. Obama is ignoring the advice of transportation experts and high-speed rail advocates who said the best way to build continuing political support for the program would be to concentrate on two or three grants large enough to get a high-speed line up and running. Once that happens, they reasoned, other parts of the country would lobby for more money to build their own lines.

Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, the senior Republican on the House Transportation Committee, complained that the slower Midwest lines were “selected more for political reasons than for high-speed service.”

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