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Obama puts $13 billion high-speed rail investment on track

WASHINGTON, DC, April 17, 2009 (ENS) – President Barack Obama Thursday released his administration’s plan for a new high-speed rail system that he says will reduce dependence on cars and planes and spur economic development.

The plan identifies $8 billion provided in the Recovery Act plus $1 billion a year for five years requested in the federal budget to jumpstart a world-class passenger rail system and set the direction of the Obama transportation policy.

America’s only high-speed rail service is Amtrak’s Acela Express operating between Washington, DC and Boston via Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. (Photo credit unknown)

“What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America,” said the President at a news conference in Washington. “Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.”

“This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future,” said Obama. “It is now. It is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here,” he said, mentioning high-speed rail developments in France, Spain, China and Japan.

The plan identifies two types of projects for funding. One would create new corridors for world-class high-speed rail. The other would involve making train service along existing rail lines faster.

The Obama plan identifies 10 high-speed rail corridors as potential recipients of federal funding: California, Pacific Northwest, South Central, Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network, Florida, Southeast, Empire, Northern New England and the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania.

Opportunities also exist for the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston to compete for funds to improve the nation’s only existing high-speed rail service.

States and local communities are invited to put together plans for a network of 100 mile to 600 mile corridors, which will compete for the federal dollars.

The government is publishing a detailed guidance for state and local applicants for the funds, and by late summer, the Federal Railroad Administration will begin awarding the first round of grants to fund projects that will begin to turn this vision into reality.

“Like all funding decisions under the Recovery Act, money will be distributed based on merit,” said Obama, “not on politics, not as favors, not for any other consideration – purely on merit.”

Under the plan, high-speed rail development will advance along three funding tracks:

  • Individual Projects. Providing grants to complete individual projects that are “ready to go” with completed environmental and preliminary engineering work – with an emphasis on near term job creation. Eligible projects include acquisition, construction of or improvements to infrastructure, facilities and equipment.
  • Corridor programs. Developing entire phases or geographic sections of high-speed rail corridors that have completed corridor plans, environmental documentation and have a prioritized list of projects to help meet the corridor objectives.
  • Planning. Entering into cooperative agreements for planning activities, including development of corridor plans and State Rail Plans, using non-American Recovery and Reinvestment Act appropriations funds. This third approach is intended to help establish a structured mechanism and funding stream for future corridor development activities.

“A major new high-speed rail line will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve,” said the President. “High-speed rail is long-overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways.”

“As a daily rail commuter for over 35 years, this announcement is near and dear to my heart,” said Vice President Joe Biden. “Investing in a high-speed rail system will lower our dependence on foreign oil and the bill for a tank of gas; loosen the congestion suffocating our highways and skyways; and significantly reduce the damage we do to our planet.”

“President Obama’s vision of robust, high-speed rail service offers Americans the kind of travel options that throughout our history have contributed to economic growth and enhanced quality of life,” said Secretary Ray LaHood. “We simply can’t build the economy of the future on the transportation networks of the past.”

Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler was one of five state transportation secretaries in the audience at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the high-speed rail announcement.

“Governor [Ed] Rendell has demonstrated the wisdom of investing in high-speed rail,” Biehler said. “Under the governor’s leadership, Pennsylvania in 2006 completed a $145 million improvement project with Amtrak to increase speeds on the Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. The resulting sharp increase in ridership demonstrates that by making smart investments, you can make a big difference for the nation’s mobility.”

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