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The Obama administration says the development of a national high-speed rail system could be a vital part of the country's long-term economic future. The White House awarded $8 billion in seed money to begin to build a network of trains that could zip passengers from one city to another, but the plan recently hit a couple of bumps.
Two incoming Republican governors, John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, said they would reject their share of federal high-speed rail money, calling the project a boondoggle.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood acted quickly to reallocate the funds and divided up more than a billion dollars between California, Florida and a dozen other states. We'll hear from Secretary Lahood in a moment. First, this update from NPR's Greg Allen.
GREG ALLEN: President of the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association Andy Kunz says personally he wasn't disappointed when incoming governors Walker and Kasich announced they would pass on the federal high speed rail funds.
Mr. ANDY KUNZ (President, U.S. High-Speed Rail Association): If they thought they were making a statement, I actually think they helped the national program.
ALLEN: That's because it allowed the two states with plans farthest along, California and Florida, to receive a lot more money - $340 million more for Florida, $620 million more for California.
Mr. KUNZ: The sooner we get any system up and running, it'll snowball and more and more people will want high-speed rail once they see a couple of these up and running, and they'll all be going and riding them and saying, oh, these are great, we want one in our state.
ALLEN: California's High-Speed Rail Authority recently decided, in conjunction with federal officials, where to build its first segment of what will be a 520 mile route. The Authority's CEO, Roelof van Ark, says the first section, in California's Central Valley, was going to be 65 miles long.
Mr. ROELOF VAN ARK (California High-Speed Rail Authority): And what we are able to do now is, of course, extend the length of that particular line, and obviously that means that we can extend the line down to Bakersfield, and that will be a great advantage for us.
ALLEN: That almost doubles the length. Van Ark says the Authority hopes to begin construction in 2012.
The extra federal funding will also benefit Florida if plans for high-speed rail there go forward. Florida's incoming Republican governor, Rick Scott, has been guarded in his comments on high-speed rail. He says he's leery of cost overruns and wants to be sure Florida taxpayers aren't left with the bill.
That's left some rail supporters concerned that like incoming governors Kasich and Walker, Scott may ultimately reject the $2.4 billion in federal funds.
But Paula Dockery says she's not worried.
State Senator PAULA DOCKERY: (Republican, Florida) I'm glad he's taking the cautious position that he's taking.
ALLEN: Dockery is a state senator, a high-speed rail supporter, and a member of Scott's transition team. She's helping advise him on the state's rail plan and the discussions going on with international corporations eager to build and operate it.
There are at least seven teams in the running so far, and they include companies like Mitsubishi, Siemans, Bombardier, Amtrak, France's SNCF, a veritable who's who of international rail.
In preliminary discussions, Dockery says the companies have been willing to assume risks on ridership and cost overruns, and the teams bring their own financing to the table. She says for Florida it all adds up to a great deal.
Sen. DOCKERY: The taxpayers in the state of Florida it looks like will not have to put any money on the table for building the project, and then additionally the private consortiums are going to be on the hook for any cost overruns and operation and maintenance.
ALLEN: There will also be a buy America provision in the contract that will bring jobs to Florida, possibly also the facilities that will manufacture and maintain the train cars.
Dockery says she's confident Rick Scott will endorse the plan once he sees the details. If the new governor approves, and guidelines go out soon to companies preparing bids, Florida's first-in-the-nation high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa could be rolling in 2015.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami
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