» With governorships up for grabs in most of the nation’s states, local support for more spending on infrastructure could be eliminated.
Intent on demonstrating their resistance to virtually all of President Obama’s policy objectives, Republicans nationwide have staked out an anti-rail position that they hope will stand out as the fiscally reasonable choice when they present themselves in this fall’s elections. Though the current Democratic administration will remain in power at least until early 2013, shifting control of Congress and potential power changes at the state level could dramatically reduce the ability of the Department of Transportation to advance its plans for the development of intercity rail.
Current polling suggests that Republicans are likely to do well in November across the country. The GOP has been leading the charge against high-speed rail since the program was first announced in February 2009.
Most problematic are the governorships, up for grabs in 37 of 50 states this year. Though the majority of recent spending on new intercity rail projects has originated at the federal government, the U.S. DOT is now requiring that state applicants agree to fund at least 20% of construction costs in order to receive a federal contribution. States will also be responsible for most operations expenses.
If Republican-led state governments are unwilling to commit to spending their own dollars on these projects, they simply will not be built. Since intercity rail projects are long-term investments, even if the federal government has already agreed to sponsor some investments, the takeover of a governor’s mansion by an anti-rail Republican could mean putting a full-stop in infrastructure development. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s announcement last week of a work stoppage on the ARC tunnel project shows, this could affect even projects that have already entered the construction phase.
As the table below demonstrates, the current difficulties of Democratic candidates puts in doubt almost every project that has thus far been allocated significant capital funding from Washington. Current polling is based on analysis by political blog Campaign Diaries.
|Where U.S. High-Speed Rail Projects Stand
Most directly threatened are projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican candidates have been waging an all-out war on high-speed rail, calling it a major waste of taxpayer funds. In both states, Republicans have suggested that they would shut down projects because they do not want state taxes to be used to subsidize operations on relatively low-speed rail systems. And those individuals are poised to win in November.
In California and Florida, both of which are proposing full-scale true high-speed networks, GOP candidates have suggested that they too would disrupt completion of their respective projects. Meg Whitman, running as the Republican candidate in California, has said she “believes the state cannot afford the costs associated with high-speed rail due to our current fiscal crisis.” These races are currently rated as a tossup, just as likely to go Democratic as Republican. The current governors of California and Florida — both moderate Republicans — have been in recent years sponsors of rail investment, but they aren’t likely to pass on that view to their successors, even if they share political stripes.
In all four states, the Democratic candidate has been a proponent of increased intercity rail investment. States where Democratic candidates are expected to win — including New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut — can be expected to continue their promotion of local funding for rail. States in which there is no gubernatorial race this year, such as Missouri, North Carolina, Washington, and Virginia, are unlikely to diverge from their current pro-rail stances.
But states are just one part of the equation.
Just as problematic is the possibility of a shift of control in Congress, which must approve any federal government spending on rail programs. Though Democrats in power in the House of Representatives and the Senate have agreed to large contributions for the infrastructure effort, GOP Senators have thus far been unwilling to compromise on their distaste for government spending. Though the Senate is unlikely to shift hands, the almost certain decline in the current Democratic majority will mean further difficulties in getting new spending approved, such as President Obama’s proposed $50 billion down-payment in rail and highways.
The possibility that the majority in the House of Representatives could shift to the GOP column — more likely than a change in control of the Senate — is incredibly threatening to the agenda of promoting intercity rail as well, since the House must of course also approve any government spending.
For proponents of intercity rail development, election 2010 will not bring positive change.