July 17, 2009 By Daniel C. Vock
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, (pictured) a former Illinois congressman, has made clear that the Midwest rail project is a priority for the White House.
Reprinted with permission of Stateline.org
The race is on for states that want to build high-speed rail routes to whisk passengers hundreds of miles from city to city without the hassle of flying.
Congress sounded the starting gun by offering $8 billion in stimulus money to promote faster passenger rail service. Applications for the money, which likely will be parceled out all over the country, are due Aug. 24. But there already are two clear front-runners, offering contrasting approaches.
California dreams of bullet trains that could speed the 432 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in little more than two and a half hours. The European-style trains would cruise on all-new track, hitting 220 mph in places. California voters in November approved spending $10 billion to start building the new network, but it wouldn't be finished until 2020 at the earliest.
The other chief competitor is a coalition of nearly a dozen Midwestern states betting that slow and steady wins the race. The Midwestern trains would reach top speeds of 110 mph, faster than the 79-mph limit of most Amtrak trains today but only half as fast as those on the drawing board in California.
Proponents of the Chicago-based network, though, boast that their plan could get the first trains up and running in as little as four years once states have enough money in hand. The Midwestern trains would use existing tracks with improved signals, wider turns and safer road crossings.
There is another major difference between the top two contenders: A train whisking along from Sacramento to San Diego would cover 588 miles but never cross a state border. In the Midwest, a passenger boarding at Chicago's Union Station could end up in one of nine states once the entire network is upgraded.
Of 10 high-speed rail corridors designated by the federal government that are best-poised for the $8 billion in stimulus money, most are like the Midwest initiative and would involve regional cooperation and teamwork among states. Only Florida has an entire route contained within its borders. (The federal government even expanded the California corridor in early July to include the possibility of a spur to Las Vegas.)
Chances that the stimulus could favor the Midwestern effort are buoyed both by years of planning and a lucky turn of political events.
For more than a decade, Midwestern states have quietly worked on a plan to build a high-speed rail network centered in Chicago and sprawling for 3,000 miles.
"The Midwest has been planning for so long, it's in a very strong position," said Laura Kliewer, the director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, which promotes passenger service in the region. She noted that the states already studied how often trains would run, how much time they'd save and how many people would use them.
For example, a trip between Chicago and St. Louis would go from more than five hours to fewer than four, even though the diesel-powered trains would not be quite as fast as Amtrak's electric-powered Acela trains between Boston and Washington, D.C.
The Midwest rail initiative also benefited when Barack Obama, a Chicago native, won the White House and made high-speed rail a priority when crafting his economic stimulus package.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, has made clear that the Midwest rail project is a priority for the White House.
"This is the president's initiative. I mean he and (White House chief of