White House weighs high-speed rail investment

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:57pm GMT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is seriously considering an effort to develop high speed passenger rail service, an initiative long on planning but unrealized nationally because of financial and logistical hurdles and insufficient political backing.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday said his agency has submitted a report to the White House outlining at least six corridors for possible service as well as cost and timeline estimates.

"This is going to be President Obama's, I believe, top transportation priority," LaHood told reporters. "They asked us to give them as much information as we could."

LaHood did not identify rail corridors other than to say it would be a national effort. High speed initiatives are in various stages of planning in California, Florida, Nevada, the Carolinas, the Northeast and the Midwest.

LaHood also acknowledged the overall cost for high-speed service would go way beyond the $8 billion in rail funds included in economic stimulus legislation approved by Congress last week and signed by Obama on Tuesday.

The money was a last-minute addition and raised some eyebrows among critics of the package as funding for conventional rail has been a contentious issue for years and there has been no investment in high-speed rail.

In one of its annual budgets, the Bush administration tried to eliminate government funding for Amtrak, the nation's only long-haul passenger railroad which has been heavily subsidized since launching service nearly 40 years ago.

Bush transportation officials sought to break up Amtrak, which it contended was mismanaged, and privatize key operations.

High speed rail, a fixture in Europe and Asia, has never been a priority in the United States where the car is king and large-scale, for-profit, privately run passenger railroads disappeared in the 1960s.

But Amtrak and passenger rail advocates now have a far more receptive audience with a Democratic Congress, a new friend in Obama and a staunch ally in Vice President Joe Biden, who rode trains between Washington and Delaware for 30 years while serving in the U.S. Senate.

Rail legislation approved by Congress last year authorized money to study private investment in high speed rail. The measure was pushed by Representative John Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the Transportation Committee.

(Reporting by John Crawley, editing by Vicki Allen)

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