» $53 billion proposed for investments over the next six years. The President wants to “Win the Future,” but will his Republican opponents relax their opposition to rail spending?
Vice President Joe Biden spoke in Philadelphia this morning to announce that the Obama Administration intends to request from Congress $8 billion in federal funds for the advancement of a national high-speed rail system as part of a six-year transportation reauthorization bill.
The White House’s commitment to fast trains has been evident throughout the Administration’s two-year lifespan, beginning with the addition of $8 billion for the mode in the 2009 stimulus bill and continued with $2.5 billion included in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. Yet this new funding, which would add up to $53 billion over the six-year period, is remarkable for its ambition. It is clear that President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, already being framed in terms of “winning the future,” will hinge partially on whether voters agree with his assessment of the importance of investing in the nation’s rail transport infrastructure.
In his speech, Mr. Biden argued that American wealth was founded on “out-building” the competition. Infrastructure, he noted, is the “veins and the arteries of commerce.” The President and his team will be making this case to the American people the next two years, hoping that the public comes to endorse this message of national advancement through construction.
Whether the proposal — to be laid out in more detail with next week’s introduction the President’s full proposed FY 2012 budget — has any chance of success is undoubtedly worth questioning. Republicans have campaigned wholeheartedly against rail improvement projects in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin; even Florida’s project, which would require no operating subsidies once in service, hangs in the balance. But as part of the larger transportation reauthorization legislation, which is apparently slated to move forward by this summer, a real expansion in high-speed rail funding seems possible, especially if Mr. Obama pressures the Democratic-controlled Senate to push hard for it.
Of course, as has become typical whenever anyone has announced new transportation investments, it is not yet clear what specific revenue sources would fund high-speed rail.
The $53 billion down-payment on intercity rail would be the first step in the White House’s goal to connect 80% of the country’s population to the mode in 25 years. Funding would be allocated through two accounts: One would essentially be a New Starts capital expansion fund that would construct new lines and stations; the other would renew the existing system to bring it within a state of good repair. Importantly, the latter fund would also “provide temporary operating support to crucial state corridors while the full system is being built and developed.” This implies that the Obama Administration believes that states will continue to be skeptical of funding train operations — so the federal government must step in until self-financing high-speed lines can pay for themselves.
The plan does not specify which corridors would receive funds if the money were awarded. This implies that spending would be distributed in the same manner that have been the U.S. DOT’s grants over the past year: Through merit-based awards ultimately allocated by the Secretary of Transportation.
Big projects — such as California’s High-Speed Rail line and Amtrak’s just-announced Gateway Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan — would undoubtedly move forward, but Mr. Biden sketched out a vision of a high-speed network that is “modern, efficient, environmentally friendly, and truly national.” This suggests that the Administration will seek to invest in rail infrastructure across the country, not just in the densest areas.
This stance is likely to attract some Republican support, especially from people representing rural districts that rely on even once-daily trains: It is worth remembering that despite being put on the chopping block year after year by the Bush Administration, Amtrak managed to hang on to its federal support even when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate between 2002 and 2007.
Nonetheless, the Republicans at the helm of the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Railroads, John Mica (R-FL) and Bill Shuster (R-PA), respectively, immediately denounced the plan, suggesting that the Administration was supporting “snail-speed trains to nowhere.” It is not clear to me whether most Republican Party House members will feel this way about needed infrastructure investments in their districts, however, especially if they are combined with the highway funding also to be included in the six-year reauthorization bill.
Mr. Mica and Mr. Shuster latched on to their free-market contention that Amtrak is a “Soviet-style train system [that is a] failed… monopoly” and that only the private sector is capable of developing high-speed rail, a sentiment that may be appealing to their right-wing compatriots but is unrealistic considering that almost every train improvement project in the world has at least partially been aided by government investments.
They also repeated the now-familiar contention that the Obama Administration had been remiss in not finding adequate funding for the Northeast Corridor, whose renovation now appears to have bipartisan support. This could, as Benjamin Kabak and Jeremy Steinemann have written, be good news for projects such as the Gateway Tunnel. One can imagine a compromise in which Congressional Republicans agree to some funding for intercity rail in the transportation bill, as long as the majority of dollars go towards the Northeast Corridor.
Whatever the immediate success of the President’s proposal, Mr. Obama is making evident his plan to promote himself as the candidate for a renewed America, one in which the future is won through public investment in essential infrastructure. This represents a very real contrast to the political posturing of his Republican opponents, who have been staking their political cause on being opposed to government spending of almost any type. Mr. Biden concluded his speech with the following:
“If we do not take this step now, if we do not seize the future, you tell me how America is going to have the opportunity to lead the world economy in the 21st Century like we did in the 20th. We cannot settle. We are determined to lead again. And this is the beginning of our effort to, once again, lead the future.”
* The map at the top of this article represents my interpretation of what connecting 80% of America to the intercity rail network would mean; it is not based on any government publication.