There’s been a lot of speculation – including on this blog – about the potential for the Obama Administration to advance funding for transportation improvements such as public transportation and high-speed rail. That said, a few of Barack Obama’s recent comments about infrastructure funding put a focus on “roads and bridges,” two investments that definitely need funding but which should not be our priorities. And yet we on this blog continue hoping, wishing, pleading, that Mr. Obama is simply avoiding transit issues because they’re too controversial. Let’s inject a little more skepticism into this equation, shall we?
The truth is that Bill Clinton, running back in 1992, argued far more forcefully for high-speed rail during the campaign than Mr. Obama ever has. And yet Mr. Clinton’s presidency produced few advances on that front. What can we expect from Mr. Obama?
Back in 1992, Mr. Clinton was running a campaign as a third-way “New Democrat” who was willing to accept free trade and deregulated capitalism. He envisioned a Democratic Party that was socially liberal, as it had been since the late ’60s, but economically conservative, as the Reagan era had made clear was popular with the people. As a result, he wasn’t too big of a proponent of “big government.” Rather, his most significant accomplishment, it could be argued, was the reform of welfare to welfare-to-work.
His rival Tom Harkin was a big proponent of a new New Deal that would restore the country’s then-fading infrastructure, with a focus on mass transit and green improvements. In the context of the recession that was then plaguing the country’s economy, Harkin – who called himself “The Builder” – argued that such a program could put millions of Americans to work.
Mr. Clinton was running to the right of the Democratic Party back in the primaries, and didn’t believe that a big economic building program like that which Harkin suggested was a good idea. But he still believed that government funding for some things was a good idea. In the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Clinton advanced his idea for a high-speed rail program, arguing that there were certain corridors in the country that demanded a better travel alternative. In April, in a speech to the Wharton School of Management in Philadelphia, Mr. Clinton promised the following:
“A Clinton Administration will use a portion of transportation funding and possibly funds transferred from defense to create a high-speed rail network between our nation’s major cities. Bullet trains in five major corridors could serve 500,000 passengers a day at speeds up to 300 miles per hour.“
His plan relied on maglev trains – then coming into fashion – rather than the more standard TGV/Shinkashen-type steel-on-rail type of high-speed trains. But the important point is that Mr. Clinton saw high-speed rail as a useful way to transform the country’s mobility systems – even if it meant sacrificing defense dollars, something no politician appears willing to say today.
By June, in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mr. Clinton had even come around on the issue of an economic stimulus plan to boost the economy:
“My plan is a bold plan. It offers $50 billion in new investments over the next four years in each of the next four years. New incentives for the private sector, an investment tax credit, urban enterprise zones, new business tax incentives, research and development incentives and others.
“It offers $20 billion a year in hard Federal dollars every year for the next four years, to build an economy for the 21st century, to invest in new roads and bridges, and streets and rail systems, to develop high-speed rail and a national fiber optic network, to develop new environmental technologies to clean our waters and our air, and to recycle more of our solid wastes. In short, to do those things which we are not doing today.“
Before he was elected, Mr. Clinton had laid out a major economic plan, one of whose major elements was the high-speed rail system. Unlike Mr. Obama in his recent statement, Mr. Clinton was willing to put “rail systems” (presumably transit) and “high-speed rail” in the same sentence as “roads and bridges.” Mr. Clinton clearly didn’t find the issue to be so controversial that he wasn’t willing to talk about it. And Mr. Clinton was running on the right of the Democratic Party.
By the time of the Second Presidential Debate, Mr. Clinton laid out his plan to an entire national audience, something Mr. Obama has never done in reference to transit or high-speed rail initiatives:
“My plan would dedicate $20 billion a year in each of the next four years for investment and new transportation, communications, environmental clean-up, and new technologies for the 21st century and we would target it especially in areas that have been either depressed or which have lost a lot of defense-related jobs. There are 200,000 people in California, for example, who’ve lost their defense-related jobs. They ought to be engaged in making high-speed rail; they ought to be engaged in breaking ground in other technologies, doing waste recycling, clean water technology, and things of that kind.“
So went the Presidential Campaign of 1992. Bill Clinton – the winner, after all – successfully used high-speed rail investments, explained to the entire nation, as a way to convince people to vote for him. He saw trains as a winning issue, at least during the electoral season.
But once the election was over and Mr. Clinton was implementing his transition program, some who had been excited about the candidate’s plans during the campaign began worrying about the candidate’s actual priorities. As The New York Times put it on November 6th, 1992:
“Equally tricky will be integrating environmental concerns into the plan for economic recovery, as Mr. Clinton has promised to do. Saying there is “good infrastructure and bad infrastructure,” environmentalists want to insure, for example, that public-works spending leans away from autos, trucks and highways and toward rail, mass transit and pedestrian systems. Early drafts of Mr. Clinton’s proposals have disappointed many of them.“
But there was still hope, and in December, Mr. Clinton held an economic meeting with advisers in Little Rock to discuss how to stimulate the economy. He brought in the president of Amtrak, W. Graham Claytor, who argued “that the railroad was ready to start ‘instantly’ to spend more money, adding, ‘Long-term solutions don’t come about unless there’s short-term action.‘” As with today, at the time, there was palpable excitement about what the next president would be able to do to change the country. And in Mr. Clinton’s time, as in ours, high-speed rail was thought to be on the cusp of massive implementation.
And yet we all know what comes next. Mr. Clinton entered office and the 1993 High-Speed Rail Development Act, considered in the House, did not move. Though the Federal Railroad Administration has designated corridors for high-speed rail, little has come of the effort. Though Mr. Clinton’s campaign persona seemed like it would produce a very pro-rail president, the result was far less than that. Mr. Clinton did little to promote the issue. He never designated more than a few million dollars to any corridor. The Northeast Corridor’s improvement was half-hearted and resulted in not-so-fast “high-speed” rail.
The lesson we should take from the Clinton campaign is to take our own interpretations of Mr. Obama’s statements with a grain of salt. Though it’s nice to imagine the candidate is going to go all-out for high-speed rail, his positions so far have been less forthright than those of Mr. Clinton. Clearly, the President-elect is going to have to do a lot to convince us of his true positions – and that means prioritizing, in the budget.
We shall see in the next few months whether Mr. Obama truly cares about high-speed rail. But let’s not forget to keep up our own activism, rather than let our assumptions about his get in the way.