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state of the state: transportation

Tom R. Skancke comes across like somebody trying to sell snow tires in Florida. Earnest, crisp and well-rehearsed, he has you fingering your credit card. But do you really need them?

Instead of snow tires, he's pushing high-speed trains that would link major cities of the West. So far, governments serving the metropolitan Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Reno and Salt Lake City areas have joined Skancke's Western High Speed Rail Alliance. He hopes to get New Mexico on board, and he argues that Washington and Oregon would be logical members.

Development of high-speed rail in the United States has lagged France, Spain and several other countries. China now plans a major investment of $100 billion. The U.S. government recently promised $8 billion to projects in California, Texas, Florida and elsewhere.

High-speed rail shouldn't be confused with Amtrak. The former must achieve speeds of 150 mph or more. Amtrak trains dawdle, rarely cracking 80 even in wide-open spaces. Too, they play second fiddle to freight trains.

"The reason people don't take rail in this country is because it's not predictable, and it's not reliable," Skancke said at a recent meeting in Denver. "The reason it's not predictable is because it shares track with freight rail."

Transportation planners want straighter, dedicated lines. They see the greatest potential in connecting major metropolitan areas of 500 miles or less. That describes the Los Angeles-San Francisco link, where California planners hope to install a $60 billion high-speed rail corridor. They aim to be competitive with airplanes in both fares and - given the delays caused by airport security - time.

That's congested California. Do Salt Lake, Denver and Reno have enough traffic between them to justify such connections? Skancke hasn't done his homework on that yet, instead portraying the cities of the interior West as symbiotic, with great interdependency that will allow them to compete on the world stage. "Our competition is not Iowa," he said. "It's China. It's India."

Skancke has a bagful of reasons why the time has come for high-speed rail in the West, but a skeptical view might suggest more raw political strategy. If high-speed rail moves forward, it will surely need to plunder the federal treasury. Federal money was integral to development of interstate highways, airports and the early railroads.

For Las Vegas or Phoenix to get a high-speed line to Los Angeles, it needs a block of votes in Congress. It needs other states at its side. But Colorado could also need allies. A recent study found high-speed rail was financially and physically feasible along the state's two primary travel corridors, I-25 and I-70. Costs have been estimated at $22 billion. But who knows, maybe the Chinese will finance it.
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Allen Best

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