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Stimulus Accelerates High-Speed Rail Hopes

The United States has lagged behind other industrialized countries in providing high-speed rail, but the stimulus package includes a big boost advocates have been praying for.
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Thanks to Barack Obama, Angelo Armenti may finally get the $250 million he’s been looking for. Armenti is the president of California University of Pennsylvania, and for the past few years he’s been touting the benefits of a new transportation technology based on magnetic levitation, which suspends trains above a track and propels them along via magnetic fields at speeds up to 300 mph.

The mag-lev system Armenti touts is cheaper than others currently in existence, yet because it can climb higher inclines than light rail, take curves like a charm and has a top speed of 180 miles per hour, it could be used for both intra- and intercity transport.

Armenti wants to make his school, which has two campuses that are one mile — and 600 feet in elevation — apart, a federal demonstration project for the technology. But first he has to raise $250 million for the test. So maybe, just maybe, because Congress included $8 billion earmarked for high-speed rail projects in the current economic stimulus package, Armenti will get the money he wants.

“Not enough people know about this technology,” said Armenti. “That’s why the demonstration project is critical. This technology would solve enormous problems. It could handle the traffic between Philadelphia and New York, easily.”
Well, a man can dream, can’t he?

Competition for that $8 billion will be intense with big states like Illinois and New York promoting big plans. Nationwide, there are 11 high-speed-rail corridors in various stages of discussion, and one of them, a proposed 800-mile system that would run trains at speeds up to 220 mph and connect San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, has already been jump started by a $10 billion bond issue approved by California voters in last November’s election.

“California has a strong track record in conventional rail, and one reason the proposition was able to pass was what their tax dollars had done to improve the existing service,” said Ross Capon of the National Association of Rail Passengers. “There’s no question California is ahead of the pack with conventional rail and the voters’ commitment to develop high-speed rail.”
“I think a lot of people will be watching to see how California goes, the challenges, the difficulties they run into,” added Jim Wrinn of Trains magazine. “Once (high-speed rail) has been done outside the Northeast corridor (where the Boston-to-Washington Acela train tops out at 150 mph), I think a lot of people will jump into the pool.”

Yet that $10 billion is only for the first phase of the proposed Golden State high-speed line, which gives an indication of just how expensive the technology can be. Wrinn estimates that, given acquisition and infrastructure costs, the price tag for high-speed rail is “obviously in the millions per mile.”

Still, advocates of the kinds of trains that have been in use in Europe and Asia for decades say it’s time the United States joins the rest of the developed world and starts ponying up for a transportation system that is greener than cars and planes, and can help relieve the congestion on our highways and in the air.

Take Spain. The high-speed system there is so successful that domestic air flights carried 20 percent fewer passengers in 2008 than they did the year before. A major reason for this was that in February 2008, the government opened a high-speed-rail line between Madrid and Barcelona, at that point the busiest air link in the world with nearly 1,000 departures a week. The 220-mph trains have cut travel time between the two cities, which are more than 400 miles apart, to 155 minutes. And they go downtown to downtown, another advantage of train travel.

Also on, how the idea of high speed rail died in Texas while thriving in Spain during the 1980s.

In the U.S., the Acela is the only legitimate high-speed line in the country. And even though the Acela must share its tracks with freight and commuter traffic (European and Asian high-speed trains run on specially constructed tracks), the convenience of the train, plus high gas prices and other factors, helped contribute to an 8 percent increase in ridership in the first 10 months of last year.

Numbers like these please rail advocates greatly.

“The time seems to be right for a change in public opinion, a sea change overall,” said Peter LeCody of Texas Rail Advocates, a lobbying group pushing for a high-speed system linking Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. “A lot of it has to do with being able to move around the country freely. People are tired of having to take their shoes off at airport security. And in the shorter corridors, the 300-mile corridors, (high-speed rail) makes a lot more sense.”

The question, however, is whether the money — and the political will — exists. Capon believes one reason for European success in this area is that “they figured out how to finance things, and we haven’t. We are hesitant looking for the financing tools to do this.”

But Wrinn feels the public is starting to come around because, he said, every time he runs across someone who has ridden one of the European high-speed lines, their first question is “’Why don’t we have this in the U.S.?’”

Capon believes “polls way back show the public wants good (transportation) alternatives,” and the recession, combined with high gas prices, congested highways and airports, and what has been termed “the new frugalism,” might make train travel popular again.

But rail is not exactly a high priority in the stimulus package — a lot more money is going toward infrastructure projects likehighway and bridge construction and repair. Plus, most of the high-speed plans are a long way from being “shovel ready,” which means their ability to create substantial numbers of jobs is probably years away.

“Thanks to a long history of little or no funding for rail,” said Capon, “the projects you can define as shovel ready are not anything near what the highway boys can define.”

So what it all comes down to how is that $8 billion will be allocated. “What will be telling is how they draw up the priority list in coming weeks,” says Wrinn. “You could pour the money into a lot of projects, or give most of it to just one and hope that it is so successful that others will follow.

“There has not been the political will before (to fund these projects), because of the high cost” he adds hopefully. “But I think there are now enough people who would like to see projects funded, that it could happen. This is certainly the first presidential administration that has gotten behind this.”

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