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UTA getting aboard high-speed rail

It joins alliance of Western cities planning train linkups

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Salt Lake and other Western cities may someday be on routes for trains like German Siemens AG-made Velaro series.

Salt Lake and other Western cities may someday be on routes for trains like German Siemens AG-made Velaro series.

Kirill Kudryavtsev, AFP/Getty Images

Imagine waking up on a crisp Sunday morning, digging in the basement to find your trusty orange and blue jersey, then hopping the train for a three-hour ride to Invesco Field at Mile High to watch the Denver Broncos in crushing action.

Today, such a trip may seem like the ultimate football fantasy.

But in the past five years, as pollution, global climate change, fluctuating fuel prices and dwindling oil supplies have gotten people worried, transportation leaders across the United States have been talking seriously about high-speed rail as a solution. They're drawing maps dotted with potential train routes. They're forming regional alliances. And they're talking about funding.

For decades, "bullet trains" have been cheaply and conveniently transporting people in Europe and Asia. In April, President Barack Obama announced $13 billion — some coming from the $787 billion stimulus bill and some from the 2010 budget — would go to improve existing railroad and invest in high-speed rail.

Obama identified a handful of regions that could benefit. The Rocky Mountain West was not mentioned.

But Utah Transit Authority general manager John Inglish does not want Wasatch Front residents to be left at the station.

At a recent UTA Board of Trustees meeting, Inglish announced UTA was joining the so-called Western High-Speed Rail Alliance. The trustees passed a motion in support of UTA paying the alliance $5,000 a month.

Other cities in the alliance are Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, Denver and possibly Albuquerque. The money they contribute will pay for preliminary studies about where and how the trains would run and connect to other parts of the national network.

Critics of high speed believe the proposition is simply too costly. The rail lines will need expensive government money to start and continue running, they believe. Inglish describes high-speed rail as anything over 120 mph with some speeds up to 250 mph.

"It's a system," he said. "It isn't all marked at one speed. But it's all faster than 79 mph" the speed limit of FrontRunner Commuter Rail, set by the Federal Railroad Administration.

With plans for high speed in California under way, the Western High Speed Rail Alliance hopes to tie in with it, via Las Vegas to Southern California.

"And so the logical next connector is from Las Vegas to Salt Lake," Inglish said. "And then Salt Lake becomes the crossing point where it goes west, back again to the San Francisco Bay area or Sacramento and connects into that system."

"Or it goes east through Denver and ultimately to connect into the Texas systems that are running down between Dallas and Houston," Inglish said, describing the Texas proposal called the "Texas T-Bone Corridor," that would connect Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Houston, Austin and other cities.

Proponents of high speed believe it "is a very green thing to do," as Inglish says, since high-speed trains would run on electricity.

Trains could haul masses of people who would normally drive or fly and burn gases many scientists believe contribute to global warming.

"In terms of travel between cities that are roughly 500 miles apart, it's far more convenient to get on high speed," Inglish said.

"That will get you there in a couple of hours. Even though an airport may get you there in an hour and a half, you still have the problem of landing in an airport outside your destination, and at least a 30 to 40 minute ground transportation travel for the city center."

(However, Inglish also noted that transportation officials are debating where to put rail stations. Some believe they should be in city centers, others believe they should be at airports.)

"The problem is that no one has until now put forth the concept of a national high-speed network," Inglish said, "which is really quite amazing considering every developed country in the world, virtually, has high-speed rail — the Europeans, the Chinese, the Japanese."

In Japan, high-speed rail, Shinkansen, is referred to as "bullet trains" because of their shape. France's national rail company is TGV, a French acronym that translates to "high-speed train." And in the Golden State, it's called the California High Speed Rail Authority.

California is pushing full-steam ahead with high-speed rail and will likely be the first to finish in the current wave of high-speed proposals, although Amtrak runs the Acela Express, which travels up to 150 mph between Boston and Washington, D.C.

In November 2008, Californians approved a ballot measure allowing the state to sell $9 billion in bonds to finance the 800-mile system. The main line would connect Sacramento and San Diego, through the Central Valley and cities such as Fresno and Bakersfield. Two additional lines are planned to connect the San Francisco Bay Area to the main line.

However, in the recession, California's state government is experiencing a $23 billion revenue deficit. Some question if it's prudent to have rail when other services have been cut.

The libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., last year released a policy analysis on high-speed rail concluding the trains were "high-risk megaprojects."

The institute estimated it will cost $25 billion to $50 billion to build new lines and improve existing lines across the United States, money fronted by taxpayers. "Once the projects are completed, most plans call for them to be turned over to private companies that will keep any operational profits, while taxpayers remain vulnerable if the trains lose money," the analysis states, noting that Amtrak is heavily subsidized by the government. Fares, which will likely be double Amtrak fares, will not cover operating expenses for 15 years.

Amtrak receives about 22 cents per passenger mile in government money. Public transit receives about 61 cents a mile in subsidies, according to Cato.

High speed will take few cars off the road. The policy analysis concluded that the trains will not make a dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, high speed will likely not have to be built from the ground up.

Inglish said that most of the track will likely run alongside or on current freight railroad track. Not many mountains would have to be blasted for new track.

Timewise, it may take decades for high-speed trains to roll into Salt Lake City. Inglish believes the federal government should approach high-speed similar to how it approached the national interstate system.

"That's to make sure everybody's getting a fair shake," he said. "And that's what they did with the freeway: Everybody got a freeway through their city based on their size. Now, many cities didn't get their freeways and interchanges until late in the game, and that was OK. Because everybody knew the commitment was to the network not to individual projects and that it would get built over a period of many years. It ended up taking 50 years."

e-mail: lhancock@desnews.com

Twitter: laurahancock