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High-speed rail: Stimulus dollars wisely spent?

President Obama's $8-billion investment in high-speed rail may be a giant step forward in the country's transportation system, but experts question if it will gain traction among car-loving Americans.

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What will be the impact?

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According to some projections, the $8 billion might be expected to produce about 320,000 jobs and roughly $13 billion in economic benefit.

A nationwide high-speed rail network could mean 29 million fewer car trips and 500,000 fewer plane flights annually, according to a 2006 study. That would save 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of removing a million cars from the road annually.

Can high-speed rail compete with air and auto?

In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail lessens congestion at airports and on highways.

In the US, the main impact is expected to come on 100- to 600-mile routes. For example, a five-hour, 300-mile trip from St. Louis to Chicago could be cut to about three hours and 40 minutes by high-speed rail, potentially reducing the need for short-hop jets and taking thousands of cars off the road, says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which represents train riders.

Will it be a boondoggle or a boon?

The plan is "a giant step forward in the transformation of our nation's transportation system," says Howard Learner, whose Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center supports high-speed rail.

But others are leery of what they see as a plan that won't lure Americans from their cars and therefore may not pay off.

"To believe this makes economic sense, you'd have to be foolish," says James Moore, director of the transportation and engineering program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "In the US, autos cover shorter trips better and airlines capture longer trips. That doesn't leave room for high-speed rail to compete."

Schenendorf sees a need for high-speed rail in the US, but says that future funding will be the key.

While the Obama initiative is a "positive first step," he says, it's just "a drop in the bucket of what the nation will need to get the kind of high-speed rail network it needs. It will take a lot more money to get these systems built out."

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