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 staff) Rahm (Emanuel) personally saw to it that Congress included $8 billion for high-speed rail. And I don’t want to answer to the president why we’re not doing something in the Midwest,” LaHood told the Chicago Tribune.
A letter signed by eight Midwest governors to LaHood also pointed out that high-speed rail would be “greatly beneficial” to Chicago in its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.
The first stage of the plan would be to connect Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit and Madison, Wis. Later, the faster trains would reach Omaha, Neb.; Kansas City, Mo.; Minneapolis; and Cincinnati.
The $8 billion to create new high-speed rail routes is 10 times as much as Amtrak’s nationwide passenger system spent on building projects last year. And it’s far more than supporters expected.
“We were trying to get half that,” said Kliewer.
But coordination remains an issue, both to get the stimulus money and beyond. First the Midwest states must determine whether a single entity will lead the effort to get federal money for different pieces of the network. LaHood told Chicago business leaders in May that there should be a single Midwest “rail czar” to coordinate the effort.
Minnesota may spearhead the effort to pay for environmental studies of a route between Madison, Wis., and the Twin Cities. Wisconsin, meanwhile, would focus on fixing tracks and crossings between Chicago and Milwaukee and replacing parts of an abandoned line between Milwaukee and Madison, said Ron Adams, the chief of harbors and railroads for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
And Illinois asked the federal government just last week for money to study a speedier alternative to the 110-mph trains. In early July, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, an advocacy group, released a study calling for 220-mph trains between Chicago and St. Louis, which would make the trip possible in just two hours. Now Illinois wants to further evaluate that option.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is trying to organize a meeting of Midwestern governors in late July to plan their approach. Quinn also met with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) in late June to sign an agreement between their states regarding a Chicago-to-St. Louis route.
The stimulus money wouldn’t be enough to complete the Midwest’s plans, which would cost $9.6 billion and take 10 years to complete. The remaining money likely would have to come from a highway bill Congress is now working on. The first draft of that law includes money for high-speed rail for the first time, with a $50 billion effort over six years.