- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2001

The U.S. Conference of Mayors yesterday released a survey showing that support for more high-speed rail systems to link major cities is growing even among residents of inland urban areas.

A bill pending in Congress would help Amtrak raise $10 billion over 10 years to make track and train improvements necessary for high-speed service on as many as 11 rail corridors, in addition to the Northeast Corridor. However, skeptics in Congress who balk at the cost have pledged to oppose it.

The mayors met in Union Station during their winter meeting. High-speed rail was the top priority they announced for the coming Bush administration.

Their survey of 1,013 randomly selected registered voters in 10 major cities showed growing concern about traffic congestion and disbelief that more road-building will eliminate the problem.

At their meeting yesterday, mayors who spoke to the group of 300 said the cost of building and maintaining additional road capacity would be more expensive than even the high cost of new rail systems.

"You cannot build your way out of capacity problems," said Tulsa Mayor Susan Savage, referring to policies of building more roadway lanes to alleviate traffic congestion.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said: "What we really need is a balanced transportation plan." A combination of roadways, airports and rail systems would optimize the use of all three travel modes, he said. However, a continuing reliance on road-building as a primary method of combatting traffic congestion was an incomplete solution, he said.

"Rail is the answer," he said. He mentioned as an example Amtrak's new Acela high-speed train that runs along the Northeast Corridor. "Over the first four weeks of the service, we've seen 11,000 passengers," Mr. Menino said.

Amtrak reported last week that Acela earned more than $1.25 million in ticket sales in its first month, beating projections by 12 percent. Earnings were strong despite the need to remove Acela from service twice in the first week for unplanned maintenance.

The train was on time which means within 15 minutes of schedule 94 percent of the time.

Amtrak officials hope that America's first taste of bullet trains will spur public support. Other corridors designated by Amtrak as good candidates for high-speed rail include St. Louis to Chicago, Orlando to Miami, San Diego to San Francisco, San Antonio to Dallas and Washington to Richmond.

Acela's first month of rosy earnings contradicts predictions of a recent report to Congress by Transportation Department Inspector-General Kenneth Mead. The report said Amtrak may be overestimating how many Amtrak riders will pay higher fares to take its faster trains. Amtrak estimates it will earn $180 million a year from Acela.

Despite Amtrak and the U.S. Conference of Mayors' optimism, some congressmen remain skeptical.

"The committee will be eager to learn how the Conference of Mayors is proposing to fund a national high-speed rail system and particularly to the extent that state and local money will be utilized," said a spokesman for the Senate Commerce Committee.

Acela and its backup train are the first of 20 train sets Amtrak is receiving from Bombardier Transportation of Canada and Alstom Ltd. of France. All 20 are planned to operate along the Northeast Corridor by next summer.

Two more are scheduled to begin operating next month. As more trains arrive, Amtrak plans to begin a nonstop service between Washington and New York that will take two hours, 28 minutes.

Amtrak President George Warrington said at the meeting yesterday that highway and airway congestion is "no longer just a Northeast problem."

The mayors' survey found similar observations among residents of the South and West, where the telephone survey was conducted from Dec. 19 to 28 by the Global Strategy Group.

Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said traffic has worsened in the past five years. Sixty-two percent said they would be interested in using high-speed rail if it were available.

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents said traffic congestion will get worse in the next five to 10 years unless new transportation alternatives are used. Residents of areas where new public-transportation systems have opened or are planned to open soon such as Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Dallas had the most favorable opinion of public transportation.


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