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White House to dole out $8 billion for fast trains

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- High-speed rail projects in California, Florida and Illinois are among the big winners of $8 billion in grants to be announced today by the White House -- the start of what some Democrats tout as a national rail-building program that could rival the interstate highways begun in the Eisenhower era.

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Thirteen rail corridors in 31 states received funds. The White House, which supplied a list of the grants to reporters late Wednesday, billed the program as "high-speed rail," although most U.S. projects won't reach the speeds seen in Europe and Asia. California's trains would be by far the fastest, exceeding the 200 mph achieved by some trains overseas.

Some of the money will go toward trains with top speeds of 110 mph, while other funds -- such as the $400 million allotted to Ohio to connect Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati by rail -- will be for trains traveling no faster than 79 mph.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are expected to pitch the program as a boost to the economy at a town hall meeting today in Tampa, Fla. A half-dozen Cabinet members and other senior administration officials were scheduled to fan out across the country for rail events today and Friday. The White House said rail projects will create or save thousands of jobs in areas like track laying, manufacturing, planning, engineering and rail maintenance and operations.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and members of Congress have acknowledged they expect much of the expertise and equipment to be supplied by foreign companies. Except for Amtrak's Acela line between Boston and Washington, there are no high-speed trains in the U.S. and no domestic high-speed rail industry.

Congress set aside the $8 billion as part of the economic recovery plan enacted last year. The money is just a start. Last year, Obama asked Congress in his budget request for an additional $1 billion a year for five years. Congress for this year approved another $2.5 billion that remains to be awarded. And Obama is expected to ask for yet more rail funds when his budget is presented next week.

Also, LaHood has hinted that some of the $1.5 billion allotted in the stimulus plan for discretionary transportation projects may go toward high-speed rail.

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