How does high-speed rail get from here to there?

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Backers of high-speed rail service have never been more excited. Thanks to the unabashed enthusiasm of the Obama administration, $13 billion in new federal funding may suddenly be available, courtesy of the stimulus package and the president’s budget proposal. But as a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing made clear Wednesday, there’s still a long path to travel in transforming American high speed rail from pipe dream to reality.

The primary dose of sober realism came from the Government Accountability Office. In characteristically comprehensive fashion, the GAO issued a 100-plus page report last month identifying a host of challenges for high speed rail. GAO investigators, who traveled to countries well-versed in high speed rail development, found that successful projects require a massive jump-start by the federal government. But before that happens, their report suggests, truly national goals must be defined, in order to “ensure the federal role is effective and efficient and focused on yielding maximum benefits.” At least some federal guidance is in the offing. The Department of Transportation, which has worked to identify possible corridors for high-speed rail service, is slated to issue an interim guidance in June on how best to spend the stimulus money.

That money will likely yield a swarm of new interest groups lobbying for this corridor or that one — with many proposals historically likely to inflate projected ridership numbers and underestimate project costs.

While Amtrak, which received an additional $1.3 billion in stimulus grants, highlighted the need for track improvements in the northeast corridor at Wednesday’s hearing, the testimony of Ohio Transportation Director Jolene M. Molitoris revealed more of what’s to come:

Ohio is building its own version of the OneRail Coalition, with Governor [Ted] Strickland, Ohio’s legislature, freight railroads, businesses, Ohio cities, and a majority of Ohioans. This commitment to true transportation choice has generated great excitement at every level of both the public and private sectors.

The forecast calls for similar excitement to pop up in a variety of states. Thirteen billion in new money will have that effect on people.

Proposed corridors and stations for a high-speed rail system linking the northeast corridor with a hub in Ohio.

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