WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on called on Congress to back a six-year, 53-billion-dollar investment in high-speed, intercity rail, saying it was "dreaming big" on reinventing US infrastructure.
But Republicans, now wielding the power of the purse after November's mid-term election triumph, slammed the plan, and called on the White House to stop throwing money at America's "Soviet-style" railroad system.
Vice President Joe Biden, a rail advocate, unveiled the planned investment, which would give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, at an event in Philadelphia, on the congested northeast rail "corridor."
It seemed highly unlikely, however, that the program would be fully or partially funded by Congress, as Republicans who now lead the House of Representatives oppose President Barack Obama's infrastructure spending plans.
Biden and Obama argue that reinvigorating America's creaking Amtrak service makes sense for economic, practical and environmental reasons, and advocates bemoan the limited routes of the current US high-speed rail network.
"As a longtime Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced," Biden said.
"This plan will help us to do that, while also increasing access to convenient high speed rail for more Americans."
The service envisages three types of interconnected rail corridors -- including a core express service with electric trains whisking passengers along dedicated tracks at between 125 and 250 miles per hour (200 and 400 kilometers per hour.)
Another network of regional corridors would see trains travel at speeds between 90-125 miles per hour (144 and 200 kilometers per hour) to cut trip times, while a third branch of services would funnel passengers towards speedy inter-city networks.
"In America, we pride ourselves on dreaming big and building big," Ray LaHood, Obama's Secretary of Transportation.
"This historic investment in America's high-speed rail network keeps us on track toward economic opportunity and competitiveness in the 21st century."
Obama argued in the State of the Union address last month that reinventing America's economy and reviving US infrastructure was crucial to tackling high unemployment and helping the US economy complete with rising giants like China and India.
The investment announced on Tuesday will build on an initial 10.5 billion dollar down-payment already made by the administration on a national high-speed rail system.
A first installment of the 53 billion dollar plan will be unveiled in Obama's next budget which is due to be released next week.
The French engineering giant Alstom welcomed the proposals.
"We are confident that such infrastructure investments in high-speed rail and traditional rail networks will make a significant contribution in creating jobs, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing dependence on foreign oil," the company's North America director Guillaume Mehlman said.
"We look forward to getting to work -- and putting people to work -- in building America's new rail transportation network," he added in a statement.
Republicans, however, signalled they want to ensure the plan never leaves the legislative station.
"This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio," said John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, referring to the disgraced financier who is serving a 150-year prison sentence for Wall Street fraud.
Mica said previous administration rail grants had shown the Federal Railroad Administration was not a "capable" agency to disburse funds.
He also charged that projects which the administration had touted as high-speed rail ended up as "embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere."
"Amtrak's Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service," said Mica, who has accused the administration of failing to attract private investment to the cause of high-speed rail.
© AFP 2014