WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration started the wheels rolling yesterday on a proposal to link U.S. cities with a network of high-speed trains.
The $1.3 billion program includes about $1 billion to upgrade railroad corridors and slightly under $300 million toward research and development, including support for new magnetic levitation technology.
During his campaign for the presidency last year, President Clinton promised to support high-speed rail technology. Rail advocates had hoped for a larger investment from the federal government. But Mr. Clinton's transportation secretary defended the proposed five-year program yesterday as prudent under the circumstances.
"The signal we're sending here is that we're going to be a player," Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena told reporters at a news conference at the Capitol. "We're going to be a partner with the states."
Most of the money offered by the Clinton plan would go toward matching grants to states, local governments and private companies to upgrade tracks, install new signals and buy the equipment to provide faster conventional steel-wheel rail service in targeted corridors.
Mr. Pena said he would like to see the joint projects provide passenger service comparable to what is available along the Northeast corridor, where Amtrak Metroliner trains reach speeds of 125 mph.
Amtrak has been experimenting with the X2000, a Swedish-made electric tilt train capable of speeds exceeding 150 mph on conventional tracks, in an $800 million program to upgrade Northeast service.
Corridors that have already been designated by the Transportation Department as priority for possible high-speed service include Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit and Milwaukee; Miami to Orlando to Tampa; San Diego to Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay area; Eugene, Ore., to Seattle to Vancouver, Canada; and Washington to Richmond and Raleigh-Charlotte.
Congressional Democrats hailed yesterday's announcement as a turnaround in rail policy from that of two Republican presidents who wanted to eliminate Amtrak.
"What President Clinton and Secretary Pena are trying to do is make the rails move faster," said Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat. "Everybody would like more money, but the support of the administration is the important thing."
Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, said the plan is "realistic and pragmatic." He said high-speed trains could boost the economy, spur technological innovation, help the environment and conserve energy.
The Clinton plan provides slightly less money for the development of a magnetic levitation prototype than was previously authorized by Congress. The Baltimore-Washington corridor is one of at least a half-dozen potential sites for the $1 billion project, which would have trains running at 300 mph on a cushion of air. William J. Boardman, a lobbyist for Washington-based Maglev USA, predicted that Mr. Clinton's $228 million maglev development program would face a battle in Congress. Some experts assert that maglev technology is unproven, expensive and impractical.
The Maryland Transportation Department is overseeing a $1 million study of four routes for a Washington-Baltimore maglev system.
The construction of a maglev prototype is not expected to begin until 1999.
"We're thrilled that maglev is still in the ballgame," said Phyllis M. Wilkins, executive director of the Maryland Maglev Project for Maryland Economic Growth Associates Inc., a nonprofit business group that is helping finance the study.