PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced an ambitious $53 billion program to build new high-speed rail networks and make existing ones faster over the next six years.
Biden, who estimated he has ridden Amtrak between Washington and his home in Wilmington, Delaware, some 7,900 times, made a strong pitch for rail transportation to enable the United States to compete and lead internationally.
"This is about seizing the future," he said, making the announcement at Philadelphia's busy 30th Street station with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Japan and China are already building high-speed rail, and "there's no reason, none," that the United States cannot do the same, Biden said.
"If we do not, you tell me how America is going to be able to lead the world in the 21st century."
Under the initiative, the Department of Transportation will choose corridors for new projects and increase U.S. use of the passenger rails.
President Barack Obama's budget for fiscal year 2012, to be unveiled next week, includes $8 billion for the plan. The rest of the money would be allocated over the six-year time period.
Obama has said he wants to target investments in areas such as infrastructure while reducing spending to tackle the budget deficit.
The announcement comes when some Republicans in Congress are seeking to cut $2.5 trillion from federal spending over the next decade, including steep cuts in transportation.
Biden noted Obama's goal to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, announced during his State of the Union address last month.
Specifically, Biden laid out plans for three types of rail -- regional rail with trains speeds of 90 to 125 mph; core express rail corridors that would form the backbone of the high-speed system with electric trains travelling at speeds of 125 to 250 mph; and corridors with trains travelling at up to 90 mph.
The announcement follows Monday's news that Amtrak, the nation's largest passenger rail service, plans a $13.5 billion commuter-rail project connecting New York City and New Jersey, reviving an idea rejected late last year by New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, as too expensive.
Advocates say U.S. investment in high-speed rail lags many other countries and point to China, which plans to invest $451 billion to $602 billion in its high-speed rail network between 2011 and 2015, according to the China Securities Journal. (Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)