After criticizing high-speed rail, Louisiana’s governor submitted a preliminary application for federal funds. Now, after being criticized for his hypocrisy, Bobby Jindal changes his mind once again.
Just last month, Louisiana informed the Federal Railroad Administration that it would request funds for a $300 million high-speed link between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The final application was due today — but Mr. Jindal has now decided not to submit it, citing concerns that the line would not be self-sustaining. Considering the general attitude of the American right, however, it seems reasonable to suggest that the governor’s decision was motivated more by an attempt to save face in front of his conservative allies than by a fiscal argument.
In his televised Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address in February, Mr. Jindal focused his aim at high-speed rail, arguing that it was “larded.” Like most modern conservatives, the governor has made a point to claim that virtually any government spending is wasteful, no matter its actual value; in other words, public expenditures are almost always bad, private involvement is almost always good. That anti-interventionist position, inspired by an obsessive adherence to Ronald Reagan’s legacy, has provided the principal ideological backbone to today’s GOP. But as Paul Krugman put it in today’s Times, Reaganomics has failed to improve the relative economic situation of the vast majority of U.S. citizens, while making the super-rich wealthier than ever.
I should note that Republican objections to government spending extend to almost everything, but the party does seem willing to increase expenditures on highways and the military.
Thus it was a surprise when Mr. Jindal suggested that he would ask for high-speed rail funds from the stimulus. Perhaps it was no surprise either that the governor has now reneged on his commitment, though the Louisiana Department of Transportation claims that the decision was non-political, based on the state’s unwillingness to subsidize a rail line in the future. That explanation, however, is hard to believe; prior to this action, local officials were given the impression that they would be asked to help find the funds for the corridor’s operations. The President of the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce apparently plans to ask the state to reconsider its decision.
Mr. Jindal’s actions put serious holes in the suggestion that spending on infrastructure such as high-speed rail can be a bipartisan goal. The Transport Index I published last week suggests the same, showing that Senate members of the GOP are overwhelmingly anti-investment. Republican opposition to every aspect of the Democratic agenda is becoming increasing clear, and U.S. involvement in high-speed rail could become a rallying point for criticism. Already, conservative commentators are zeroing in on “the triumph of fantasy over fact” that they think trains represent, without fully considering the advantages of rail investment.
To suggest that high-speed rail will become a lighting rod for criticism — especially by rural or suburban GOP legislators, who see little gain for their constituents and who gasp at the suggestion that any government program might be expanded — seems evident. If the Republicans regain control of the Congress in the 2010 midterms, hopes for an bettered U.S. train system will be dashed on the tracks.