High-Speed Rail Infrastructure President

The Promise of an Obama Presidency

It’s been repeated over and over: Barack Obama is willing and interested to consider investing more in alternative transportation, whereas John McCain seems completely obsessed and uninterested in discussing anything other than “drill, baby, drill,” that disgusting catchphrase screamed out by attendees at the Republican National Convention back in September. Though Senator McCain repeatedly spoke out against Bush’s anti-environmentalism in the beginning of the Republican’s Presidency, any sense that McCain would depart from the current GOP obsession with feeding cars as much gasoline as possible seems unlikely.

Obama’s time in the Senate wasn’t marked by much effort to sponsor increased federal outlays for transportation. In the Illinois State Senate, he pushed for better METRA (commuter rail) service for his Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. In the Senate, he has voted predictably Democratic, meaning that he has voted in favor of transit funding, but never made a big show by sponsoring a major increasing in funding. And on the campaign trail, Senator Obama’s rhetoric has shifted back and forth between progressive visions of a transportation future and the typical road-hugging rhetoric: following the populist panic that erupted post-gas price increases, he endorsed the idea of increased offshore drilling. But Obama has also countered with other ideas, namely a focus on the potential power of high speed rail, local transit, and biking to reshape our commuting habits.

McCain’s obsession with the “unfairness” of federal earmarks (which his running mate took full advantage of) would bring great pain to transit agencies all over the country, whose budgets – like it or not – are often reliant on those Congressional subsidies. And Obama, correctly, does not envision getting rid of the earmark system. So while McCain missed a preliminary vote and then voted against the recent Washington, D.C. Metro bill that provides the agency with billions of dollars of necessary aid, Obama made a point to vote for the bill several times, even in the midst of the busy campaign season. We can expect an Obama presidency to encourage transit funding. While it is unlikely that major changes in financing the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will come from the White House, if Democratic Congressional leaders get it together enough to see the massive need for infrastructure investment in transit, they should expect no veto from this President.

But Obama may in fact stand out on an issue McCain has spent years fighting against: funding intercity rail. In vote after vote, McCain has made it more than clear that he has no interest in subsidizing the Amtrak network, and has vowed in the past to make every effort to push the system out of the government’s books. Stubborn in his commitments, McCain seems to have learned nothing from the success of European and Asian governments in constructing and maintaining high quality rail systems.

Obama’s choice of Senator Joe Biden as candidate for Vice President seemed to indicate that rail would indeed be a priority for the next Democratic administration. Biden, as has been widely reported, commuted each day to the Senate from his home in Wilmington, Delaware on Amtrak. He has indicated his strong support for the agency and the services he provides, and perhaps then it is no surprise that the Vice President of Amtrak’s board is Biden’s son. Biden, then, will contribute to Obama’s liking for intercity rail and the team is likely to explicitly suggest more funding for this transportation resource.

Perhaps more than any other specific investment, Obama has pointed out the potention of high speed rail in his “native” Midwest, where he has envisioned a corridor of railways connecting Chicago with Indianapolis, St. Louis, Columbus, and other declining formerly industrial cities. This does not depart significantly from the vision put forth by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Obama understands the ability of high speed rail to connect and revitalizing urban cores and also its great advantages over both automobile and airplane travel for trips of less than 500 miles.

So the growing interest in high speed rail – in California, the Southeast, and the Midwest – will be stimulated by an Obama Administration. Senator John Kerry’s gigantic future high speed rail bill – which was leaked in September – will be introduced in next year’s session. An Obama White House is likely to use its new power to force votes and eventual passage of the bill. An increase in high speed rail, then, seems likely to be one of the first projects of the new administration.

If like every President, Obama is interested in developing a built legacy, a potential model might be President Eisenhower’s Interstate System, whose thousands of miles of roadways, built with mostly federal support, have come to define the American built environment. An Obama Interstate Rail System, for example, would do the same for the 21st century.

One final note: when in Portland, Obama spoke of the importance of alternative forms of transportation such as biking, which plays a major role in the commute patterns of Oregonians. An Obama Presidency will find federal funds for alternative commutes – and encourage people to get out of their cars.

Tomorrow: what the next Administration needs to do to radically change the American transportation scene.

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