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Congressional committee criticizes pace of high-speed rail development

By Kelly Catalfamo

Publication: The Day

Published December 07. 2012 4:00AM

Washington - Members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee acknowledged Thursday that bringing high-speed rail to the United States has been a slow-moving process.

But they reaffirmed the high-speed rail goal and vowed to look for ways to make the project faster and more efficient.

However, some legislators at the hearing, at which U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified, took issue with the pace of high-speed rail projects.

Despite infrastructure updates in the Northeast Corridor outlined by LaHood, the most recent plan calls for high-speed rail to reach the area in 30 years at a cost of $130 billion.

Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., said the plan could be accomplished in one-third of that time for one-third of that amount.

"The Northeast Corridor is where I think we should be putting the focus. … But we're doing that in a piecemeal, half-baked manner," Mica said. He also noted that declaring a project "shovel-ready" had become a "national joke" because it took so long to move forward.

From the other side of the political aisle, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-Washington, D.C., called the lack of high-speed rail in the United States "a matter of personal embarrassment as an American citizen." She said those who developed the nation's rail system "would be turning over in their graves to see how far behind we are developed and developing countries on high-speed rail."

But LaHood defended the project's timeline. "It took 50 years to build the interstate system," he reminded the committee. "We are doing for the next generation what previous generations did for us."

Countered LaHood: "For those of you who think we haven't moved fast enough, four years ago, there was no high-speed rail vision. Four years ago, we had not invested $10 billion. And if we'd have moved too fast, and the money hadn't been spent or allocated properly, I'd be sitting here answering your questions about that."

Part of the reason high-speed rail development hasn't moved faster, said LaHood, is that the federal government had to negotiate with freight rail lines.

The Transportation Department has spent the past four years negotiating agreements with freight rail companies, LaHood said. The government has now secured "agreements with every freight company in America to use their freight system, to use their infrastructure, because we don't have enough money to build all the tracks. We need our friends in freight."

Meanwhile, LaHood defended the Obama administration's overall efforts to update rail transportation.

"As we invest in our rail, we're creating jobs and supporting economic growth across the country," said LaHood, who said the federal government has 152 projects moving forward in 32 states.

By 2016, LaHood said, these investments also will ensure that the rail segment between New Haven and Hartford "will be completely double-tracked, providing commuters more frequent and reliable train service and shorter trips."

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