Obama's high-speed rail faces political challenge

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US President Barack Obama wants to build high-speed trains like France's famous TGV around the country to boost US competitiveness and create jobs.

But when his 2011-2012 budget plan comes out on Monday, Republicans are likely to hone in on $8 billion in proposed rail funds in their effort to slash spending.

An issue of national economic strategy for the White House, high-speed railways, which are under construction from Latin America to the Middle East and across Asia, are mired in political party rivalry over budgets in the United States.

Two newly elected Republican governors in the past three months denied crucial federal funds to rail projects, all but killing them, after their Democratic predecessors backed the projects.

And the powerful, allegedly pro-rail head of a key House of Representatives committee on transportation, Republican John Mica, condemned Obama's plan to use federal funds to speed up trains in the country's most heavily traveled rail stretch, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor run by the government-owned Amtrak.

"Amtrak's Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service," Mica said.

In January. Obama declared that building rapid railways is key to the US economy's recovery.

"To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information -- from high-speed rail to high-speed Internet," he said in his January 25 State of the Union address.

"Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports."

Obama proposed to give 80 percent of Americans -- essentially all the largest urban areas -- access to rapid train transport in 25 years.

"This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying -- without the pat-down."

Two weeks later, Vice President Joe Biden -- the administration's biggest rail fan -- spelled out the details of a $53 billion, six-year plan to support a number of rail projects, with $8 billion the first year.

The plan's idea of "high-speed" rail is modest: the main proposals mean boosting existing lines to 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph).

But Biden also proposed ground-up projects for "very high speed" trains like those in Europe, Japan and now China: trains running 350 kph (220 mph) or more, that would require laying entirely new tracks.

Routes are already roughly laid out: improving Amtrak's northeast corridor; linking Los Angeles and San Francisco in California; creating a Chicago-centered system in the industrial upper midwest; and tying Florida's major cities Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

But partisan fights over whether the country should invest more in infrastructure has left all of those projects uncertain.

And, despite Mica's call for rail projects to be privately financed, investors and rail builders say they won't undertake such massive investments without government money or a clear commitment.

"Obviously it needs both funding and political will," said Stephen Robillard, vice president of Siemens' US high-speed rail division, which is working on the California project.

"What I don't know is to what extent it will happen," he said.

Projects in Ohio and Wisconsin were killed when new Republican governors said they would not accept federal funds for them.

In Wisconsin, the governor turned back $810 million meant for a link between Milwaukee and Madison.

That left Spanish train builder Talgo hanging: it had already plowed money into a production facility for four train sets for the route.

"We had a bad experience in Wisconsin where the governor rejected the funds," chief executive Antonio Perez told AFP. "That's why I'm skeptical" of the US program.

Andy Kurz, president of the US High Speed Rail Association, said the Obama government needs an agency dedicated to high-speed rail, like the one that built interstate highways decades ago, so that the onus is not on cash-strapped states.

But that thinking makes high-speed rail a key target for Republicans determined to cut federal government spending -- even if the Obama plan is a minute part of a budget that will top $3 trillion.

But, says Kurz, the Republican position will also block job creation efforts, boost air pollution, and leave more people stranded in airports.

"We spend hundreds of billions on other forms of transport," he said. "High-speed railways offer the most mobility for money spent."

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