When it comes to trains, there's fast and then there's really, really fast.
Advocates on Tuesday unveiled an $11.5 billion plan for a Chicago-St. Louis high-speed line that could cut travel times to two hours from the current five. If built, it would be among the fastest U.S. lines and would rival high-tech systems already in place in Europe and Asia.
Under the proposal, electric-powered trains would zoom the nearly 300 miles between Chicago and St. Louis at up to 220 mph - more than 100 mph faster than diesel-powered trains under a comparatively modest plan already advocated by eight Midwestern governors.
The newer plan is generating excitement among rail enthusiasts, some of whom pooh-pooh the gubernatorial proposal - which envisions trains that reach top speeds of 110 mph - as too conservative.
Tuesday's proposal - the focus of a study released by the non-profit Midwest High Speed Rail Association - would require upgrading tracks and bridges as well as electrifying the line. The estimated price tag doesn't include costs of new trains or maintenance.
With backing from Illinois officials, the ambitious project could be done in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Chicago is bidding to host, said Rick Harnish, the association's executive director. A deadline seven years away, he said, is ambitious but doable.
"You sometimes need an audacious goal," he said. "We also need to catch up to the rest of the world."
The proposal for a 220-mph service is intended to complement, not replace, the governors' plan, Harnish said. The 110 mph trains would serve more communities and make more stops en route, something Harnish and his Chicago-based group supports.
Pluses of the newly proposed electric-train line would include helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Harnish said.
Backers want Illinois to apply for $10 million in federal stimulus funds for further analysis they hope could lead to a detailed plan. Harnish conceded money to foot the total bill of the project may have to come from new taxes or fees.
"But I think the public will accept a new funding stream if it includes paying for new ways of travel," he said.
Skeptics question whether any benefits would justify the cost.
"This is a classic case of a nice idea - but one where the government will end up misallocating dollars," said John Tillman, head of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. "This would be subsidized travel when there are already ways to get to and from St. Louis and Chicago."
The $11.5 billion would be better spent, he said, on buying 1 million fuel-efficient cars. He also questioned whether electric trains would be more environmentally friendly given that they would likely rely on energy generated by coal-burning plants.
The estimated $10 billion proposal backed by the Midwest governors would join 12 metropolitan areas, including Chicago and St. Louis, in a network with Chicago as its hub. Upgrading existing tracks would enable trains to travel up to 110 mph, according to the plan.
Currently, the top speed of trains running between Chicago and St. Louis, Bloomington and Springfield is just under 80 mph.
The Midwest governors' plan and a California proposal are front runners in the race for $8 billion in federal stimulus cash set aside for high-speed rail. California wants to build 800 miles of high-speed track connecting the San Francisco-San Jose area with Los Angeles and Anaheim.
The only rail service that currently qualifies as high-speed - that is, where trains travel at more than 90 mph - is Amtrak's Acela Express connecting Boston to Washington, D.C.
Would you like to see high-speed rail in Illinois? Is the $11.5 billion investment worth the money? Sound off in the comments.