» With major exception of California, high-speed rail projects put in limbo nationwide after Republican gubernatorial wins. GOP takeover of the U.S. House is likely to result in continued difficulties passing a transportation bill, let alone a progressive one.
The 2010 midterm election wasn’t about transportation. But the takeover of several governorships, many Senate seats, and the U.S. House of Representatives in general by the Republican Party portends difficult times ahead for both the Obama Administration’s agenda and the Democratic Party in general.
For advocates who hope for the creation of a major high-speed rail system connecting the country’s largest cities, a Republican-led House is not good news: The party’s chosen spokesmen have been criticizing President Obama’s fast train initiative since it was announced in early 2009 and their rhetoric has been mostly unchanged. In general, Republican senators have been unwilling to vote for bills that have aided in the production of alternative infrastructure. The Bush Administration, the most recent example of Republican sentiment, was anti-rail and in favor of decreased funding for agencies like the Federal Transit Administration.
There are, of course, some GOP members who haven’t been enemies of the program, notably likely new House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica of Florida; it is possible that he and people like him will play a more prominent role over the next two years.
Yet the more problematic aspect of the GOP’s new power is the party’s unity around the issue of fiscal austerity. Whatever one’s personal thinking about the importance of reducing budget deficits, the fact remains that transportation is largely funded by the government, so a decrease in public expenditures in general likely means fewer funds for highway and transit projects. There is little hope for exceptionalism in transportation: Considering their votes on the 2009 Stimulus bill and their complete opposition to increasing taxes (which will be necessary for any transportation program), Republicans appear not to share the philosophy of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, for instance, whose leaders have cut back massively on social programs even as infrastructure spending has been maintained.
Nevertheless, there were a few bright spots for transportation proponents tonight: In particular, the victory for Governor Jerry Brown (D) in California means that the nation’s biggest high-speed rail project has support from that state’s executive office. And the fact that the Democrats have maintained control over the Senate means that any radically anti-transit legislation is unlikely. I have focused on intercity rail in this article because the issue is easier to track at the national level. The future of highway and transit funding is likely to evolve over the next few months. Republican control of the House and Democratic running of the Senate will mean unpredictability when it comes to the future of transportation funding in Washington.
The Gubernatorial Races
Democratic Governor Ted Strickland lost his reelection race in Ohio, putting in question the construction of the planned 3C line, supposed to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland with intercity rail service for the first time in several decades. His opponent John Kasich is a major opponent of the project and likely will campaign to return the $400 million the federal government gave to the project in 2009. Those funds will be redistributed to another state more interested in developing its rail program.
In Wisconsin, the defeat of City of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker (R) indicates that the planned Milwaukee-Madison intercity rail line is now on insecure footing. Mr. Walker has opposed the project vociferously, claiming that a $7 million a year operating subsidy is too much for a state that spends more than $1 billion a year on highway projects alone. If Mr. Walker were in complete control, he would undoubtedly cancel the program, whose capital costs will be almost entirely funded by $810 million in federal grants. But departing Governor Jim Doyle (D) signed agreements with the federal government on Monday assuring that his state would build the project — an action clearly motivated by his fear that Mr. Barrett would lose the race. Will Mr. Walker try to counteract those statements and throw that money back to Washington? That remains to be seen.
Florida is in a slightly different situation. Earlier in the campaign, GOP candidate Rick Scott positioned himself against his state’s true high-speed rail project to link Tampa and Orlando while his Democratic opponent Alex Sink supported the program. Even so, after the U.S. awarded the state an additional $800 million to pay for the project last month, Mr. Scott appears to have changed his mind, as long as his state does not have to contribute anything additional for the scheme. It will be hard to dismiss billions of U.S. dollars, but the Obama Administration will have to assure continued funding in order for this project to advance.
Wins for Democrats in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York mean that nascent rail programs in those states are likely to move forward, though Republican gains in state legislatures could make this a more difficult situation. Republican wins in Alabama, Georgia, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas indicate that intercity rail lines are unlikely in those places in the next few years, since U.S. funding for projects is now contingent on a state contribution. The wins for pro-rail Republican Rick Snyder in Michigan and Tom Foley in Connecticut mean little change in those states’ moderately entrepreneurial governments.
In Maryland, Martin O’Malley’s (D) reelection indicates that the Purple and Red light rail lines proposed for suburban Washington, D.C. and inner city Baltimore, respectively, will move forward. His opponent, Republican former Governor Robert Ehrlich, had been promoting the replacement of those projects with cheaper bus rapid transit lines.
The victory of John Hickenlooper (D) over Tom Tancredo (AC) and Dan Maes (R) in the Colorado gubernatorial race was good news for proponents of alternative transportation, since as mayor of Denver, Mr. Hickenlooper has been a major cheerleader for new light rail lines and also implemented the B-Cycle bike sharing system.
Most important for rail pushers, however, is the election of Democratic candidate Jerry Brown in California, replacing Republican Arnold Schwarzeneggar. Mr. Brown, unlike his opponent Republican Meg Whitman, has been a strong supporter of the state’s more than $40 billion true high-speed rail project. The program continues its momentum thanks to this result.
Democrats have maintained control of the Senate and thus will be able to prevent any excesses by the Republican House. That said, the small majority that the Democratic Party now holds will make the passage of any significant legislation all but impossible.
The new Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, has been a supporter of high-speed rail even as many of his colleagues have shown their despise for the mode. Mr. Mica’s primary interest has been in the Northeast Corridor, where he believes that a true high-speed rail system would be more appropriate than anywhere else — including his native Florida. Will this mean he will pledge to support Amtrak’s $117.5 billion plan to do so? Unknown.
Mr. Mica, however, has not been a supporter of tax increases to pay for transportation investments, either in highways or transit. He has yet to develop a serious strategy for renewing the federal funding commitment for such projects.
Down the Ballot
There were few referendums specifically regarding transportation in this election, but several that did stand out were major defeats for transit.
In Florida’s Polk and Hillsborough Counties, voters shot down proposals to increase sales taxes to pay for transit expansion. The Polk proposal would have ramped up bus services and potential allowed for the creation of light rail. Hillsborough County had been pushing strongly for a light rail line running through Tampa, but that project is now impossible because of a lack of local funding.
In Texas, the City of Richland Hills has voted to keep itself in remove itself from the Fort Worth Transit Authority (the “T”). The city currently contributes about $800,000 a year to a system that evidently benefits few of its residents.
In response, the T may eliminate the city’s station on the local Trinity Railway Express commuter line. It will remain in the system.
A measure to fund improvements for Portland’s Tri-Met transit agency was defeated by suburbanites.
President Obama and Democrats still in control of the Senate are likely to spend the next two years in open conflict with the Republican Party. The GOP-led House will serve as a major obstacle, but no bills will pass through the upper chamber without major bipartisan support simply because the Senate has evolved into an institution in which 60 votes are necessary to approve any legislation.
Nevertheless, there may be prospects for agreement between Democrats and Republicans on the passage of more funding for transportation programs. Democratic visions of a massive, $500 billion transportation reauthorization bill — replete with intermodal assessments and a huge high-speed rail grant — seem unlikely. So do any bills that clearly preference cities, such as legislation that emphasizes “complete streets” or “livability.” But there remains hope for bipartisan agreement about how to move forward on highway and transit funding: In the past, transportation has been something that Democrats and Republicans have been able to agree upon.