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Money Woes Threaten U.S. High-Speed Rail’s Future

Fri February 05, 2010 - National Edition

CHICAGO (AP) The $8 billion in stimulus cash awarded to 13 high-speed rail corridors across the United States may seem like a windfall for advocates, but there’s a catch: The money isn’t enough to finish any of the major projects.

State coffers are dry and federal spending is being cut back, so it’s unclear who, if anyone, will pay the rest of the multi-billion dollar bill.

Many states have been vague about how they would pay their part of the bill. But experts say most are counting on the federal government to cover at least half of their costs over the next few decades — a hope that may clash with President Barack Obama’s recent pledge to curb spending.

Optimists point to the 2011 federal budget Obama proposed that seeks $1 billion more for high-speed trains on top of the $8 billion he already announced in stimulus money. There’s another $2.5 billion tucked away in the 2010 federal appropriations bill that has been approved but not yet allocated.

A proposed $500 billion, six-year federal transportation reauthorization bill includes $50 billion for high-speed rail. But that generous sum was included before Obama began talking about cutting spending, and it seems unlikely to win approval in its current form.

Even if it came through, that money hardly covers the proposed price tag of the 13 high-speed rail corridors, which are estimated to cost at least $60 billion and possibly more than $100 billion over the next decade or two. Those cost estimates also don’t include the hundreds of million of dollars it could cost each year to operate the networks — costs that states typically pick up.

It also might be hard for states that are grappling with huge budget shortfalls to justify spending more on high-speed rail while education and health care are on the chopping blocks, Pattison said.

Illinois, Florida, California have by far the most to win if the money does keep flowing — and the most to lose if it doesn’t. Those three states were given the bulk of the federal stimulus money.

Chicago would become the hub of an eight-state network, which, in all, won a third of the $8 billion in stimulus money.

Florida is getting $1.25 billion for a new high-speed track that would run from Tampa to Orlando, then later from Orlando to Miami.

A planned California network is by far the most ambitious. It received the second largest slice of the stimulus pie, $2.3 billion, to begin work on an 800-mi. (1,300 km)-long, high-speed rail line tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego.

The problem is that both California, Illinois and Florida face yawning budget deficits. So anything short of a sustained federal commitment over decades could stick them with construction and then operating bills they can’t pay.

Even without a solid plan to fund the rail projects, high-speed train advocates haven’t stopped from thinking big. Some envision creating a true high-speed rail system like the ones in Asia and Europe that could cost $1 trillion.

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