» The good old money-making American tradition continues, but in whose interest?
Matthew Lewis’ brilliant story published today by the Center for Public Integrity and partially in Politico provides material evidence for the direct involvement of corporate lobbyists in the push for high-speed rail in the United States. The article is sobering in the details it uncovers on the degree to which public and private lobbying groups have attempted to influence decision-making in Congress and at the Department of Transportation. All this despite — or even because — the federal government has yet to announce even the first of the $8 billion in stimulus money it plans to award over the next few years to states and other agencies embarking on fast train system construction.
If Mr. Lewis’ report doesn’t provide specific evidence of government officials altering their planned allocations because of the influence of lobbying groups, it certainly warns that there are plenty of people spending millions of dollars to do just that. Should we be afraid?
In many cases, those lobbying are the allies of the livable communities and smart transportation movements; Mr. Lewis’ map includes, for instance, the City of Portland and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, each of which have acted proactively in favor of positive transportation investments. Everyone lobbying for high-speed rail funds wants more of them, just like you and I. So what’s the problem?
For those excited about the possibility of a U.S. high-speed rail network, coordination and advanced planning are key. Without those elements, the American fast train system could resemble something more like a series of disconnected segments, some fully built-out, others incomplete. The danger of this possibility is lost money: underinvestments in some areas and overspending in others others. If lobbyists are able to successfully push for earmarks to be spent to their preferred projects, rather than those most likely to succeed or those most necessary for the nation’s good as a whole, everyone’s mobility will suffer.
One fundamental problem is the lack of obvious contenders in the high-speed game. Though California citizens, for instance, have demonstrated their own interest in the program by authorizing $10 billion in investments, it is not clear that the federal government believes that the state is best qualified to receive the money. It would be easy enough to argue that Florida’s competing plan — despite the lack of local funding — is closer to construction and therefore a better match for the jobs-creating aspect of the stimulus. For Democrats hoping to keep Florida a Blue State, it could be a better choice for funds; if lobbyists happen to be more powerful from the Sunshine State, too, it could mean more inside deals. This is just a hypothetical comparison, but the point remains true.
This situation results most directly from Washington’s repeatedly demonstrated reluctance to clarify its grant-making process. Instead of establishing a set of objective, reliable guidelines for awarding funds, the DOT has simply given itself full reign over making well-informed decisions — i.e. political and subjective — from inside of the organization. Though President Obama’s Administration is far less biased towards corruption than its predecessor, and though its high-level officials have the least private-sector involvement of any in decades, we cannot discount the possibility that Secretary Ray LaHood’s DOT can be influenced by outside sources.
The DOT could take a major step to combat the problem of corporate lobbyists in the construction of our high-speed system by instituting more specific rules about who gets funding and by demonstrating greater transparency in the allocations process. Without changes in that direction, it will be difficult to examine why projects are being chosen for funding and the internal motivations of administrators at the DOT.