High-speed-rail executives from around the world gather in Philadelphia this week, hoping to boost support for bullet trains in the United States, where momentum has been slowed by high costs and political disputes.
The Obama administration's pledge to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed trains by 2035 seems increasingly unattainable. Instead, attention has shifted to the Northeast Corridor and California, where hopes for 220-mile-per-hour trains remain highest.
"Maybe we can bring a little help to a vision that is perhaps not fully shared yet in the United States," said Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, director-general of the International Union of Railways in Paris and a leader of the Eighth World Congress on High-Speed Rail, which opens here Wednesday.
"The wisest way to proceed is to get it running somewhere."
That could be in California, where the legislature last week approved, by a single vote, the first $8 billion for a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail line.
It could be on the Washington-to-Boston corridor, where Amtrak on Monday outlined a $151 billion proposal for 220-mile-an-hour trains by 2030.
Or it could be nowhere.
The new national transportation funding act signed by President Obama on Friday contained no money for high-speed rail, although the administration had sought about $8 billion a year. And Republican governors of Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio have spurned federal money for high-speed rail projects, sending the money back to Washington.
"There's no federal money, there's no private money, and states are not in a position to finance it," said Ken Orski, a transportation adviser to several Republican presidents, including George W. Bush. "The conference in Philadelphia will be high on rhetoric and talk of things going on in Europe and the Middle East . . . but in the domestic situation, their only hope is California."
Not so, says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
"High-speed rail is alive and well in America," he said Monday. "The future is as bright as it's ever been.
"We will not be dissuaded by the naysayers in Congress. All over the country, ordinary Americans want to get off of clogged highways and have the kind of transportation they see in other countries. This is being driven by ordinary citizens."
Advocates of high-speed rail (defined as trains traveling at least 155 miles per hour) tout not only the transforming ability to travel quickly between congested cities, but also the thousands of jobs such projects create, their environmental benefits, and the economic gains they generate for high-speed corridors.
Critics point to the cost, especially at a time of record national deficits. Federal funds will be required to build any high-speed line, even if the trains ultimately pay for their own operation and maintenance.
The 500-mile California line would cost at least $68 billion to build, according to current estimates. The trip has been estimated at 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Amtrak estimates it would cost $151 billion to upgrade the Northeast Corridor and install a separate 438-mile high-speed line between Washington and Boston.
Not building high-speed rail could also have costs, according to the American Public Transportation Association, one of the sponsors of the Philadelphia conference.
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