National News

May 9, 2011 3:38 PM by CNN Wire Staff

Administration announces $2B for high-speed rail

(CNN) -- The Obama administration rolled out another $2 billion in funding Monday for high-speed rail development -- part of an ongoing push for infrastructure modernization supported partly by the 2009 economic stimulus package.

Fifteen states and Amtrak will receive the money to back 22 high-speed intercity passenger rail projects. Among other things, the funds will be used to improve speed and service in the Boston-Washington "Northeast Corridor," add faster rail lines in the Midwest, and help spur more efficient train service between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Nearly $300 million will be spent to reduce major delays for trains coming in and out of Manhattan -- the nation's busiest passenger rail junction.

The White House has proposed spending $53 billion over the next six years to promote high-speed rail -- an initiative facing a chilly reception in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

"President Obama and I made a commitment to improve and expand America's transportation system," Vice President Joe Biden said in a statement. These new investments "will continue our progress toward making this vision a reality."

Biden, a regular Amtrak commuter between his home state of Delaware and Washington during his 36 years in the Senate, is known as a leading supporter of federally supported rail travel.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, on hand at New York's Penn Station for the announcement, insisted the funds will "help states across the country create jobs, spur economic development and boost manufacturing in their communities."

Obama said in January's State of the Union address that he was setting a goal of giving 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.

The stimulus act has provided approximately $10.1 billion for Obama's goal so far, according to the Transportation Department.

"By 2050, the United States will be home to 100 million additional people -- the equivalent of another California, Texas, New York and Florida combined," LaHood noted. "We simply cannot build enough highways and airports to accommodate this growth."

Supporters insist the emphasis on faster rail transportation is a necessary investment in the country's future economic competitiveness. Critics contend it's little more than a massive boondoggle that is contributing to skyrocketing federal deficits while providing few proven benefits over the long term.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a first-term Republican, surprised a number of observers in February by rejecting $432 million in funding from the Obama administration for an Orlando-to-Tampa high-speed rail project.

The administration previously pulled $1.2 billion in funding from Ohio and Wisconsin after their newly elected GOP governors vowed to kill high-speed rail projects that were underway.

LaHood portrayed those cases Monday as relatively rare exceptions, noting that the Transportation Department received $10 billion worth of requests for the $2 billion available.

"Who says America does not have a pent-up demand?" he asked.

Amtrak officials note that they set a new annual ridership record of over 28 million passengers for the last fiscal year.

Regardless, the new spending makes little sense at the current time, according to Sam Staley, an analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian-oriented Los Angeles-based think tank.

The administration "seems to be completely deaf to the real concerns about whether this is a well thought out program," Staley told CNN. "There are so many other transportation needs that are going unfunded, including just bring existing transit systems up to a good state of repair."

"I don't see how anyone looking at the numbers can say that high-speed rail is going to be a primary driver of economic growth" in the regions targeted by the new money, Staley said.

"What it will do is supplement the existing transportation network and serve a very targeted niche of that market. But it's not going to be a broad-based transportation solution."

-- CNN's Alan Silverleib and Steve Kastenbaum contributed to this report

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