President Barack Obama on Thursday outlined plans for a high-speed rail network he said would change the way Americans travel, drawing comparisons to the 1950s creation of the interstate highway system.
Obama characterized his plan as a down payment on a rail system that will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to build, connecting Chicago and St. Louis, Orlando and Miami, Portland and Seattle and dozens of other metropolitan areas around the country.
"This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future," Obama said during an event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is adjacent to the White House. "It is happening right now. It's been happening for decades. The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here."
The United States trails other developed countries in developing high-speed rail. The Spanish can travel the 386 miles from Madrid to Barcelona at speeds averaging almost 150 miles per hour. Japan's Shinkansen links its major cities at speeds averaging 180 mph and France's TGV train averages about 133 mph in carrying passengers from Paris to Lyon.
The only U.S. rail service that meets the Federal Railroad Administration's 110 mph threshold to qualify as high-speed rail is Amtrak's 9-year-old Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.
Initially, regional transportation offices will compete for the $8 billion included in the $787 billion economic stimulus spending package for high-speed rail, bolstered by $1 billion a year for five years requested in the federal budget.
The $8 billion is part of $64 billion in the stimulus package for roads, bridges, rail and transit, what Obama called "the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s."
Obama said the first round of money would go to upgrading and increasing speeds on existing lines where people could quickly be put to work. The second and third phases would focus on high-speed rail planning and money to jump-start corridors not yet ready for construction. The Transportation Department is to announce first-round grants before the end of the summer.
Obama said a mature high-speed rail system would reduce demand for foreign oil and eliminate more than 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year — equivalent to removing 1 million cars from the roads.
Any region could present a long-range plan, he said, although the stimulus money can go only to the 10 major corridors designated by the Federal Railroad Administration and covering lines in Texas, California, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Gulf Coast, the Southeast, northern New England, Pennsylvania and New York.
The Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, joining Chicago and 11 other metropolitan areas within 400 miles, is a front-runner. The governors of eight Midwest states wrote Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week appealing for money for the region, one of the hardest hit by the recession.
Howard Learner, president of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, a group promoting the rail network, said that with about $2 billion of the stimulus money they could complete or upgrade lines linking Chicago with St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee-Madison.
"It's a way of solving our global warming problems that also creates jobs and provides a boost to the economy," he said.
But the competition will be fierce.
"We are very jazzed about it," said Karen Parsons, executive director of the Southern High-Speed Rail Commission. She said preliminary numbers showed that they could increase capacity and speed on the existing New Orleans-Baton Rouge line for about $150 million to $200 million, and for $500 million they could expand service from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala.
Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said his state has a plan to build 800 miles of track for trains running 220 mph, at a cost of about $45 billion. He said the state may ask for about $4 billion from the federal government to work on lines between San Francisco and San Jose and Los Angeles and Anaheim.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement that his state leads others because voters last November approved nearly $10 billion in state bonds for high-speed rail. "With a boost from our federal partners, nearly 40 million Californians and millions of travelers from around the world will be able to experience the reality of America's first high-speed rail system."
Chris Lippincott, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said his office was excited about advancing plans to build high-speed lines from San Antonio to Dallas and then up to Little Rock and Tulsa. But he added that the "nation's rail needs will exceed a single injection of money," citing estimates that just staying even with current level of congestion in his state will cost $313 billion over the next 20 years.
Some say the investment is too small, Obama acknowledged. "But this is just a first step. We know this is going to be a long-term project," he said.