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High hopes for high speed

A $13 billion proposal could lay high-speed tracks in the midwest, California, and Florida.

By Staff writer / May 18, 2009

The Amtrak Acela train is a high-speed train that goes between Boston and New York City.

Alfredo Sosa /Staff /File

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Would the high-speed rail network proposed by President Obama boost the nation’s economy, cool the climate, and bring US transportation into the 21st century? Or is it a boondoggle waiting to happen?

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Kyle Spolski has few doubts.

Preparing to board the gleaming steel Acela, the nation’s only high-speed train service, the business executive calculates his Boston-to-New York travel costs. Time: about 3-1/2 hours. Cost: $124. Taxi fare: $0. Airport hassle: none.

“I used to fly, but the Acela is faster getting downtown – and I can work in comfort and plug in my computer and cellphone,” he says. “It’s also about the same cost when you factor in an airport cab ride.”

Mr. Spolski’s bottom line: “We need more high-speed trains.”

And the US may get them. On April 16, Mr. Obama unveiled his vision for a high-speed rail system that would be the most radical shift in US travel infrastructure since President Dwight Eisenhower set the Interstate Highway System in motion.

The rail plan could cost tens of billions of dollars before it’s done. But to jump-start the process, the Obama administration proposes using $13 billion ($8 billion from the stimulus fund last fall and $1 billion a year for five years) to fund up to 10 high-speed-rail corridors.

The idea is not to lay tracks coast to coast, but to zero in on densely populated regions such as the Midwest, California, and Florida, where short distances between cities would let fast trains compete with planes and cars.

Two types of projects would get funding. One could create new dedicated corridors for high-speed trains like those in Europe and Japan that exceed 200 m.p.h. Another type would improve existing lines to make them “incrementally faster,” up to 110 m.p.h. Now, regional rail authorities are dusting off long-ignored plans or revving up already moving efforts. Federal funds could start flowing by this summer.

California, which is planning a 220-m.p.h. bullet-style service from Los Angeles to San Francisco, could receive billions, observers say.

“Obviously we’re elated with the president’s plan to bring the nation’s transportation infrastructure into the 21st century,” says Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the California High Speed Rail Authority. The US passenger rail system is “behind [that of] Turkey and even Iran. We need to move forward as fast as we can. If we don’t, we’re going to suffer economically.”

But most regional plans have different goals. Unlike California’s dedicated track, most plans involve upgrading crossings, signals, and elevated “flyovers” to cruise over roads and choke points.

Such “moderate speed” rails, like one planned for the Midwest, would top out at 110 m.p.h. with average speeds of 60 to 80 m.p.h. These speeds would lessen the load on highways and airports – even if they don’t match the speeds of Europe’s and Japan’s trains, proponents say.

“One thing’s clear, we’re not going to see bullet trains running all over the country,” says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “But this effort would lay the foundation so that those kinds of projects become more plausible.”