Terrorist attacks, airline service disruptions could boost rail projects, advocates say

Friday, October 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent disruption of airline travel have officials taking another look at an older form of transportation: rail travel.

The attacks have increased already-growing support in Congress for rail projects that can serve as an alternative to air travel _ and not a moment too soon, said Ron Diridon, who is trying to keep a fledgling high-speed train project alive in a cash-strapped state.

``It is absolutely imperative,'' said Diridon, chairman of California's rail board. ``Every industrialized country in the world is building 200 mph-plus high-speed rail.''

Congress is considering several options for expanding high-speed rail, said Kevin Johnson, a spokesman for Amtrak, the national passenger rail service.

One measure, the High Speed Rail Investment Act of 2001, would authorize Amtrak to sell $12 billion in bonds over the next 10 years to develop high-speed rail lines.

Another bill would provide $71 billion in bonds and loan guarantees directly to state rail projects, bypassing Amtrak.

Notably, that measure is sponsored by Rep. Don Young, the Republican from Alaska who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

``When a guy like Don Young weighs in on something like this and says it's time to get serious on a long-term commitment, that's important,'' said former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, acting chairman of Amtrak's board of directors.

Steve Hansen, a spokesman for Young's committee, said the bill may not pass this year, but he predicted support for it ``will solidify as time goes by.''

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., is sponsoring another bill that would authorize $35 billion in loans and loan guarantees for rail projects. Hollings spokesman Andy Davis said those projects could include high-speed rail systems.

Congress is seeing ``a tremendous amount of activity'' related to passenger rail, said Mark Dysart, president of the High Speed Ground Transportation Association, a trade group that advocates improvement of intercity passenger rail systems.

``People suddenly realize it did not take much to make the country immobile,'' he said.

The increased congressional interest comes at a time when high-speed rail projects are already moving forward in several parts of the country.

Last December, Amtrak began its Acela Express service between Washington and Boston. And plans are in the works for high-speed trains on 10 other routes around the country.

The Acela trains, which can reach speeds of up to 150 mph, ``have been swamped with people'' since Sept. 11, Dukakis said.

In Florida, voters have approved a plan to build a high-speed rail system linking Florida's five biggest urban areas. And New York has an agreement with Amtrak for a $200 million high-speed rail system linking New York City, Albany and Buffalo.

Virginia has earmarked $370 million for track improvements needed to provide high-speed service between Washington and Richmond.

In California, the state's rail board is scrambling to find enough money to keep its proposed 700-mile, $26 billion system on track. The proposed high-speed trains would move passengers between Sacramento, the San Francisco area, Los Angeles and San Diego at speeds of more than 200 mph.

Legislators approved $5 million last year to begin the nearly three years of engineering and environmental studies needed before construction can begin. But that money has all but dried up amid the state's energy woes and economic slowdown.

Diridon says the rail board may end up with enough money to continue preparations for the rail system. But he said it still won't be easy to keep the project afloat.

Board members will need to ``squeeze and work as efficiently as we possibly can,'' he said.