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LaHood praises Iowa’s railroad efforts

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The nation's top transportation official expressed optimism that high-speed passenger rail will be widely available within two decades, and he praised Iowa's efforts to push for more passenger train service, the Des Moines Register reports.

U.S. Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood talked about expanding intercity passenger rail nationwide
in a speech to an international transportation conference in Des Moines and in
remarks later with reporters. He was privately lobbied on the passenger train
issue beforehand by Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Nancy Richardson,
director of the Iowa Department of Transportation.

The Iowa DOT, in
cooperation with Illinois, will seek $256 million in federal money this fall in
hopes of establishing passenger train service between Chicago and Iowa City,
via the Quad Cities. Eventually, the route would extend to Des Moines and Omaha
on the tracks of the Iowa Interstate Railroad.

LaHood, a former Illinois
Republican congressman, compared the status of the nation’s passenger rail
system to the 1950s, when the interstate highway system was being launched.

"Not all the lines
were on the map, and we didn’t know where all the money was coming from. But I
know this: There are foreign companies in America today trying to find places
to locate so they can hire American workers and build train (equipment) and to
build a rail infrastructure," LaHood said.

He added, "High-speed
intercity rail is coming to America. We are probably two decades away from the
vast majority of the country being connected, though. It is going to take
time."

LaHood was in Des Moines
for the North America’s SuperCorridor Coalition’s annual conference. About 200
people from Mexico, Canada and the United States are at the three-day event.

Iowa is served by two
Amtrak passenger trains, both running daily through southern Iowa between
Chicago and the West Coast.

LaHood made no promises
that Iowa’s and Illinois’ request for federal money for a Chicago-to-Iowa City
rail service will be approved. But he said he was impressed that the Iowa
Legislature approved state funds that can be used to match federal money to
expand passenger rail service.

The Iowa Legislature
appropriated $2 million for passenger rail for the 2011 fiscal year, which
starts July 1, 2010, and $6.5 million for the 2012 fiscal year.

Lawmakers also have
approved "intent language" to provide up to $20 million over four
years to fully finance Iowa’s commitment for matching federal passenger rail
money.

LaHood shook his head
negatively when asked whether Iowa’s and Illinois’ request for federal money
would be a harder sell than states that have more populous corridors.
"Look, if they build it, they will come. … There are examples all over America
where our investments are being well spent and well used, because if you offer
people these kinds of transportation, they will use it."

In January, federal
officials rejected an earlier request by Iowa and Illinois for the $256 million
for Chicago-to-Iowa City train service.

Iowa received $18 million
in federal money in January, including $1 million to study passenger service
between Chicago and Omaha, and $17 million for track improvements in the
Ottumwa area.

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