President Obama on Thursday outlined plans for a high-speed rail network he said would change the way Americans travel, drawing comparisons...

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Thursday outlined plans for a high-speed rail network he said would change the way Americans travel, drawing comparisons to the 1950s creation of the Interstate Highway System.

He said his proposal was a down payment on a plan that, if realized, could connect Chicago and St. Louis, Orlando, Fla., and Miami, Portland and Seattle, and dozens of other metropolitan areas throughout the country with high-speed trains.

There’s no guarantee the nation has the political will — Congress has often tried to reduce support for Amtrak — or the hundreds of billions of dollars and decades it would take to build a comprehensive fast-rail system.

“This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future,” Obama said early Thursday. “It is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.”

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The United States trails other developed countries in developing high-speed rail. The Spanish can travel the 386 miles from Madrid to Barcelona at speeds averaging almost 150 mph. Japan’s Shinkansen links its major cities at speeds averaging 180 mph and France’s TGV averages 133 mph in carrying passengers from Paris to Lyon.

The only U.S. rail service that meets the Federal Railroad Administration’s 110 mph threshold to qualify as high-speed rail is Amtrak’s Acela Express route connecting Boston to Washington.

One of 10 corridors nationwide identified by Obama as candidates for high-speed rail is the Pacific Northwest’s Amtrak Cascades route that stretches from Eugene, Ore., through Portland, Tacoma, Seattle and Bellingham to Vancouver, B.C.

Many trains run along the corridor, and for years, Amtrak Cascades has been trying to increase train speeds and add service, including a second daily train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., before February’s Winter Olympics.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon’s Gov. Ted Kulongoski applauded the news Thursday of the $8 billion rail investment, which is in addition to the Obama administration’s proposal to designate $1 billion annually for high-speed-rail development in fiscal 2010 through 2014.

“To be competitive in a 21st-century economy, we need a balanced transportation system that allows us to move people, goods and commerce quickly and efficiently — and that reduces the number of cars on our roads,” Kulongoski said.

The Federal Railroad Administration is expected to begin awarding the first round of grants by late summer.

Amtrak Cascades is operated by Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, under contract with the governments of Washington and Oregon. Last year, Amtrak Cascades had record ridership with 774,421 passengers, up from 676,670 passengers in 2007.

The $8 billion is part of $64 billion in the stimulus package for roads, bridges, rail and transit, what Obama called “the most sweeping investment in our infrastructure since President Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.”

Obama said the first round of money would go to upgrading and increasing speeds on existing lines where people could quickly be put to work. The second and third phases would focus on high-speed-rail planning and money to jump-start corridors not yet ready for construction.

He said a mature high-speed rail system would reduce demand for foreign oil and eliminate more than 6 billion pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions a year, equivalent to removing 1 million cars from the roads.

High-speed rail is a lofty goal, but some experts think Americans will consider slower speeds acceptable so long as the time it takes to go door to door is less on trains than it would be to drive or fly.

“Let’s not let perfection get in the way of the good,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “I have no doubt there is a built-in constituency for even faster trains once we go up to 110 miles per hour.”

Kristin Jackson of The Seattle Times Travel staff contributed to this report.

Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report