Pennsylvania part of plan for high-speed trains across the nation

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President Barack Obama's announcement yesterday of an ambitious plan for high-speed passenger trains connecting American cities puts Pennsylvania into a national competition for billions of dollars in federal aid.

Ten corridors, including one from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg and Philadelphia, were designated as eligible for some of the $13 billion authorized in the economic stimulus legislation or proposed by Mr. Obama for high-speed rail development.

Whether that will benefit the long-standing plan to build a high-speed magnetic levitation train from Pittsburgh International Airport through Downtown Pittsburgh to Greensburg was a matter of debate yesterday.

"The timing is just fantastic for us," said Fred Gurney, president of Maglev Inc., which has worked for nearly two decades trying to bring the project to fruition.

"There is nothing in the Obama administration plan that in any way suggests that maglev is part of the program," said Henry Posner III, a Pittsburgh-based international railroad executive.

A statement by Gov. Ed Rendell and state Transportation Secretary Allen D. Biehler did not mention the maglev project. Instead it speculated about whether money could be obtained for studies of expanding rail service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg -- currently served by just one daily Amtrak trip.

In an interview, Mr. Biehler said he didn't know if the maglev project would qualify for funding. He said that question could be answered when the U.S. Department of Transportation issues guidelines for evaluating projects, due June 17.

Separately, the state is awaiting a decision on its February application for $45 million that Congress authorized specifically for maglev projects last year in an amendment to the federal transportation legislation known as SAFETEA-LU.

Mr. Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, compared his rail initiative to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower's push to develop the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

"Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes," Mr. Obama said. "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination."

Noting the growth and popularity of high-speed rail in Europe and Asia, he added: "There's no reason why we can't do this. This is America. There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders."

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter expressed support for Mr. Obama's plan.

"The benefits for travelers and the environment, let alone the short-term job creation benefits, are significant," Mr. Casey said. "Pennsylvania is well-positioned to compete for the current and future funding."

"I'm all for it," Mr. Specter said during a visit to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's in line with what I've been proposing for some time."

"I think it's not only doable, it's critical that we do it," said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noting the energy and environmental advantages of train travel.

Congress allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail in the economic stimulus bill it passed this year, and Mr. Obama is seeking an additional $1 billion for at least the next five years in his budget proposal.

In the competition for stimulus money, projects that are ready for construction will be favored over those still in the planning stage. Mr. Biehler said he knew of no "shovel-ready" high-speed rail projects in the state.

The Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia corridor, designated as the Keystone Corridor, is a study in contrasts. Service from Harrisburg to Philadelphia is frequent, fast and reliable.

Mr. Biehler noted that in 2006, Pennsylvania completed a $145 million improvement project that shortened Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg trips by 30 minutes and boosted ridership 26 percent.

Meanwhile, just one Amtrak train operates from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, using tracks dominated by freight traffic, and operating at far slower speeds.

The Federal Railroad Administration called the eastern section a "mature passenger corridor" with 14 round trips per average workday and trains moving at top speeds of 110 mph. "West of Harrisburg, a 2005 [Norfolk Southern Railway] study suggests that significant infrastructure improvements would be needed to smoothly integrate additional passenger trains with the dense and growing freight traffic," it said.

"Realistically speaking, it's going to be years before you see anything resembling high-speed rail extended to Pittsburgh," said Mr. Posner, who recently started a luxury bus service to Harrisburg to fill the void in train and airline service to the state capital.

"As a railroad man, I look forward to the day when the Steel City Flyer [bus to Harrisburg] will have outlived its usefulness," he said.

Other corridors eligible for funding under Mr. Obama's plan are California, Pacific Northwest, South Central (Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas), Gulf Coast, Chicago Hub Network (including Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati), Florida, Southeast (Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, Fla.), Empire (New York City to Buffalo) and Northern New England.


Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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