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Congressional Panel Hears Testimony on US High Speed Rail

There was testimony in New York City on Thursday urging the United States to make a major new investment in high speed rail service, particularly in the northeast region of the country.

The House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure made a symbolic trip from the halls of Congress in Washington to a curtained balcony of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal train station. That is where the committee held hearings on proposals for high speed trains in the United States, particularly service linking the cities that make up what is called the northeast corridor, the 700-kilometer stretch from Washington to Boston, the busiest corridor of passenger rail service in the United States.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, testifying before the congressional panel, noted the location of the hearing. He described Grand Central Terminal, along with other U.S. transportation achievements such as the transcontinental railroad, as a monument to the country's tradition of dreaming big.

"But that was a long time ago. And today, our nation invests just over two percent of our GNP [gross national product] in infrastructure, while Europe invests at least twice that rate and China almost three times that rate," he said.

Bloomberg recalled a visit to Shanghai, China, several years ago where he landed at the airport and boarded a high speed magnetic levitation train. During the trip, he said, there was never a ripple in his cup of coffee.

"It was really quite amazing. And other countries are trying to do the same thing - create other modes of transportation that are much more efficient, much more rapid and answer the needs in a global world. And in Asia, in Europe, in the Middle East - they are building bullet trains and we are sitting here. What is America waiting for?," he asked.

Bloomberg praised President Barack Obama and Congress for providing $10 billion for high speed rail and said he was encouraged by the president’s commitment during his State of the Union speech earlier this week, in which he set a goal of giving 80 percent of Americans access to high speed rail within 25 years.

But the former governor of the northeastern state of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, testified that previous U.S. spending on high speed rail has been spread out over too many projects and that the planned train speed is not fast enough. He said cost estimates range from $98 billion to $117 billion.

"Those are huge numbers. But China is spending $300 billion. They will have 16,000 miles [about 25,750 kilometers] of high speed rail connecting all of their major cities. We should not fly airplanes on any flight less than 500 miles [about 805 kilometers]. Those trips should be done by high speed rail. That’s the way it’s done in Europe; that’s the way it’s done in Japan; that’s the way it’s done in China. It’s almost embarrassing what we’re doing in the United States," he said.

Both Rendell and Bloomberg are founders of an organization called Building America’s Future, which calls for increased public spending on the country’s infrastructure.