Obama Announces High-Speed Rail Projects

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President Obama announced Thursday $8 billion in grants for high-speed rail projects around the country. The White House says the projects are expected to create or save tens of thousands of jobs.


It's a big day for rail advocates. In Tampa today, President Obama announced $8 billion in grants for 13 high-speed rail corridors across the country. Many of the grants aren't actually for high-speed rail; they're for planning studies or upgrading train service on existing track.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the federal money will help create some true high-speed rail systems, and the first to be completed will be in Florida.

GREG ALLEN: President Obama previewed the announcement on the high-speed rail last night in his State of the Union address. But he flew to Tampa today and made the announcement again for a reason: Tampa is where the country's first new high-speed rail line will originate.

The $8 billion in grants is part of the stimulus package passed by Congress last year, much of which is being used to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

In Tampa, the president said it's important to also begin preparing infrastructure for the future.

President BARACK OBAMA: We want to start looking deep into the 21st century.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

President OBAMA: And we want to say to ourselves there is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can't.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: And that's what's about to happen right here in Tampa. We are going to start building a new high-speed rail line...

ALLEN: In all, 31 states are getting some of the high-speed rail money. That includes projects in Washington state, Wisconsin and North Carolina. The biggest projects are in California, Illinois and Florida.

In Florida, the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line has been in the planning stages for years. Permitting is already mostly done, and rights of way have been acquired. Trains will run at speeds up to 168 miles per hour. The line will run 88 miles, a trip that's an hour and a half now by car and by train will be less than an hour.

With the federal money, one and a quarter billion dollars, it's expected to be completed by 2014. In Tampa, Vice President Joe Biden said high-speed rail will ease traffic congestion and be good for the environment.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: Most important, we're creating jobs, good jobs, construction jobs, manufacturing jobs, and we're going to be creating them right now.

(Soundbite of applause)

ALLEN: For rail advocates in Florida, today's announcement is the culmination of literally decades of work. Ed Turanchik is a former state legislator who now heads a Florida high-speed rail group, Connect Us.

Mr.�ED TURANCHIK (President, Connect Us): Ultimately, Tampa to Orlando to Miami will serve 13 million Floridians or 67 percent of our population, five international airports that have 100 million passengers a year, four cruise ship terminals with 10 million passengers and 65 million tourists. This system is going to be a very, very strong performer.

ALLEN: Aside from Florida and California, though, most of the federal money is going not to high-speed rail but to improve service and speeds on conventional rail lines. There's a billion dollars, for example, to improve service between Chicago and St.�Louis, reducing the current five-and-a-half hour trip to four hours.

Mark Roiter(ph) says this is exactly what he was worried would happen. Roiter is a former journalist who wrote a report for the liberal Progressive Policy Institute about how best to bring high-speed rail to America.

While $8 billion is a lot of money, Roiter says splitting it up among 13 rail corridors spreads it too thin and dilutes its economic impact. Grants made in New England and Ohio, he says, will make trains more reliable but not necessarily any faster.

Mr.�MARK ROITER (Progressive Policy Institute): That is probably a good use of public money to improve conventional train service, but its high-speed rail and it doesnt jumpstart the economy.

ALLEN: Vice President Biden said today the $8 billion is just the first installment in spending on high-speed rail. The administration, he says, is committed to funding $5 billion in additional rail projects over the next five years.

But while in the U.S. high-speed rail is just leaving the station, in Europe and Asia, other countries are racing ahead. (Unintelligible) that China is well underway with an ambitious high-speed railing network that will link all of the countrys major cities and 80 percent of its population.

Last year, while the U.S. was setting aside $8 billion, China spent between $200 and $300 billion on high-speed rail.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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