HARRISBURG - A new Obama administration plan to dedicate billions of dollars in federal aid to build a nationwide high-speed rail network is welcome news to a long-time promoter of such efforts in Pennsylvania. Rep. Richard Geist, R-79, Altoona, the state House Transportation Committee chairman, has engaged on this issue with much frustration since the 1980s when he chaired a state high-speed rail commission.

An engineer by profession, Mr. Geist represents a city that was built by the old Pennsylvania Railroad and relied on railroads for its fortunes during the industrial era to an even greater extent than Scranton.

But few remember passenger rail's glory days in Pennsylvania.

"We are still a third-world country when it comes to rail," said Mr. Geist pointing to high-speed rail systems in Europe and China.

He thinks the administration's plan to allocate $53 billion over six years for high-speed rail if implemented could result in a high-speed railroad operating at speeds of 125 mph to 250 mph from Philadelphia to Chicago. This would be one of the core express corridors that the plan envisions.

The plan also foresees development of regional rail corridors with train speeds of 90 mph to 125 mph and emerging corridors with train speeds up to 90 mph.

Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the plan last week at Philadelphia's 30th Street Amtrak Station. In recent years, ridership on Amtrak's Keystone Corridor has increased by 57 percent after track upgrades enabled trains to move at speeds of 110 mph.

The focus for a rail future in Northeast Pennsylvania is the long-sought Scranton-to-New York City commuter rail line. This rail line has been discussed ever since the Poconos started filling up with people fleeing New York City's high cost of living.

The success of the commuter line will depend upon a commitment from the local, state and federal levels of government, said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. The administration's plan will need congressional approval.

"Re-establishing a passenger rail service between northeastern Pennsylvania and the New York metropolitan region could benefit if additional federal resources for rail infrastructure becomes available, but it is premature to say with any certainty what impact the president's proposal will have," said Casey spokeswoman Stephanie Zarecky.

Unique house sale

A House bill introduced last week would authorize the sale of 3.2 acres of state-owned land with improvements in the 11th Ward of the city of Harrisburg, also known as the Governor's Residence.

The measure by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-15, Monaca, is one of a number of proposals to downsize state government.

If Mr. Christiana's bill makes any headway, it would represent a new chapter in a decades-long debate about what type of residence Pennsylvania should provide for its chief executive. The residence on Front Street was built in the 1960s.

ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers, of which The Daily/Sunday Review is a part. E-mail: rswift@timesshamrock.com