» Congress isn’t able to do much in terms of passing new legislation — but the Department of Transportation hasn’t hesitated to move forward to fund intercity rail projects.
Americans are frustrated with the Congress: Over 80% of the population disapproves of the job the national legislature is doing. And no wonder. With the unemployment situation out of control and the economy still on the skids, this is the time for government action.
All we seem to be getting, however, are repeated demands from Republicans to reduce spending drastically — and meek replies from Democrats worried about upsetting the electorate. President Obama’s Jobs Bill, introduced twenty days ago, would provide a real, albeit too small, stimulus to the economy, specifically through the construction and refurbishment of infrastructure.* But the legislation has yet to be introduced in either house of Congress. Meanwhile, getting any transportation spending approved other than short-term extensions of the previous multi-year bill (which expired 729 days ago) has been impossible thanks to disagreement between the parties and a general reluctance to identify funding sources.
When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives early this year, they promised to fight to eliminate previously approved grants for states across the nation to invest in intercity rail projects. Facing a Democratic Senate, that would not be an easy proposition, but the intense effort to reduce government spending over the past year could have meant the loss of funds already promised to states — but for projects not quite ready for prime time.
In the meantime, the Department of Transportation has been pushing grants out of the federal government’s hands as quickly as possible so that they can not be rescinded.
In September alone, the Federal Railroad Administration has approved hundreds of millions of dollars for intercity rail upgrades nationwide: $149 million for New York State, $116 million for New England, $49 million for Texas, $48 million for North Carolina and Virginia, $35 million for the Northeast Corridor, $31 million for Washington State, and $13 million for Oregon, among others. Earlier this summer, hundreds of millions of dollars were appropriated to California and the Northeast. Unless states turn back the money, unlikely considering that the projects have gotten so far and their pro-rail sponsors, these funds cannot be taken back by Congress.
It’s worth questioning how ready most of these states are to use these funds now that they have them, or how quickly they’ll be able to get construction started. The first high-speed rail grants were announced in January 2010; other than the project to upgrade tracks between Chicago and St. Louis, has any major construction begun?
The DOT, perhaps, wouldn’t be rushing these grants out to the states if it were completely confident that the high-speed and intercity rail funding program were alive and well. Under an Obama Administration and a fully Democratic Congress, that would be likely.
But the Senate came very close a week and a half ago to approving a fiscal year 2012 budget that had no money at all for high-speed rail — and Mr. Obama seemed ready to go along, in the spirit of budget-cutting bipartisanship. The compromise that was eventually reached last week saved $100 million for the mode (a pittance compared to years passed), though even that could face considerable obstacles in the House.
Though Republicans now seem willing to spend a bit more money on transportation than they did a few months back because of an outcry that set in once it became clear that initial plans would reduce funding (and therefore transportation-related jobs) by 30%, their investment strategies would do little to increase the annual federal appropriations now spent on mobility. We are at a standstill, unable to make a big move.
What has been made manifest over the past few months is that President Obama’s efforts to alter American transport policy have been far from universally accepted, that their long-term effect on U.S. mobility is unclear, and that the DOT has been forced to descend into a defensive mode in which it has no choice but to push grants out as quickly as it can for fears that legislators will change their minds mid-stream.
Mr. Obama’s affection for high-speed rail is well-known, and he has included it as an integral element of his transportation plans from the beginning, unlike former President Bill Clinton, who said he cared about intercity rail during the 1992 campaign but then proceeded to forget about it. Yet, possibly because of low approval ratings stemming from other issues, the current Administration has been unable to convince other politicians — especially many Republicans — that such projects are worthy of investment. Mr. Obama’s message, rebooted several times (first as a way to “win the future,” then as part of the Jobs Bill), simply has not come across loud and clear.
These difficulties, along with the GOP-Governor-forced destruction of three marquee projects in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, has once again reinforced the idea that Americans simply cannot handle the idea of spending government funds on intercity rail — despite the quite positive effects it has produced abroad. The fact that the Congress continues to debate transportation investments in terms of mode, with a certain pot of money reserved for roads, another pot for transit, etc., suggests that few in power have taken seriously the concept that transportation decision-making should be mode-neutral and oriented towards providing the best-possible mobility, economic, and environmental benefits. The fact that future rail investments are predicated on getting specific outlays for that mode is a sad reflection of the way we currently invest in our travel corridors and in our cities; we seem to be considering mostly vehicles, not the passengers in them.
So the DOT moves forward, articulating a strategy to distribute the funds it does have as quickly as possible. This is not a long-term approach and it is not a sustainable one.
* The U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced how Mr. Obama’s Jobs Bill dollars would be distributed: $27 billion for rebuilding roads and bridges; $9 billion for rebuilding transit systems; $5 billion for TIGER-like competitive grants; $4 billion for high-speed rail projects, $3 billion for aviation improvements; and $10 billion for an infrastructure bank.
Image above: Albany-Rensselaer Station, set to receive aid from the Federal Railroad Administration for improvements, from Flickr user mava (cc).