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Transportation: Stuck Close to Neutral

Obama Works to Keep High-Speed Rail Dream Alive Despite GOP

Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority/Bloomberg
The administration wants to spend $53 billion during the next six years on high-speed rail. The rendering above shows a station proposed for San Jose, Calif.

No place exemplifies the recent partisan cracks in transportation policy — and the Obama administration’s willingness to move forward without Congress — quite like California, home of what’s perhaps the nation’s most controversial high-speed rail proposal.

Here, where the automobile has defined the landscape as much as the mountains, surf and sunshine, debates rage about how the Golden State will tackle its future transportation needs two decades after the opening of the Century Freeway, which cut an eight-lane trough of traffic across south Los Angeles to Los Angeles International Airport.

Completion of “the 105” in 1993 marked the denouement for the interstate construction era in the nation’s most populous state — one Congress had intended to usher out with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. Instead of focusing federal funding almost exclusively on building more massive and often delay-ridden superhighways such as Interstate 105, 80 priority transportation corridors connecting cities through largely rural areas were identified in the law.

But the big policy shift came in how Congress — as well as President George H.W. Bush and his Transportation secretary, Andrew Card — chose to deal with the mushrooming issue of moving the growing mass of citizenry living in America’s emerging mega-regions, the closely connected metropolitan areas that run along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and surround the Great Lakes. Instead of more urban freeways, five high-speed rail concentration areas were identified: the Northeast Corridor, with the core Washington-to-Boston route; a Florida corridor, with a focus on Miami, Orlando and Tampa; a series of Midwest routes centered on Chicago; a Pacific Northwest corridor running from Oregon into Vancouver; and the California route, roughly paralleling the highly congested route of Interstate 5, which connects San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Fits and Starts

Completing the California route became only more imperative in the two decades that followed. The booming Bay Area tech economy made flights between Los Angeles and the three San Francisco Bay Area airports into some of the most frequently delayed routes in the nation. Heavily traveled I-5 only got more congested as the population grew, but federal funding for widening the interstate was nearly gone. And yet, essentially nothing happened to start making a new generation of Pacific coast trains a reality.

That looked to change with the enactment of the 2009 economic stimulus package. President Barack Obama revived and expanded the corridors first laid out in the early 1990s and moved to drive more than $9 billion toward development and construction, declaring high-speed rail both a ready job creator for the short term and an economic necessity for competing in the 21st century.

California seemed to be among the most primed-and-ready candidates. On the previous Election Day, when the state went for Obama by 24 points, voters also approved Proposition 1A, which established and began funding the California High-Speed Rail Authority. With seed money from the stimulus package, the authority began moving on a decade-plus plan to connect some of the nation’s most congested cities with passenger trains moving as fast as 220 miles an hour — not much slower than a typical turboprop commuter plane. In scale and scope, it was likened to a West Coast version of Amtrak’s Acela Express linking Boston, New York and Washington, where speeds top out at 150 mph.

But the enthusiasm for the speedy trains was far from universal. As the state’s budget woes worsened and Republicans won control of the House, what seemed like a sure-fire plan to remake transportation along the West Coast quickly began unraveling.

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, elected to represent the Central Valley in 2010, exemplifies the intensifying distaste for high-speed rail among the new generation of Congressional Republicans, who have little memory of or fondness for the Bush-backed transportation notions espoused in the early 1990s. Denham is pushing an amendment to the House’s five-year, $260 billion surface transportation bill that would deny any more federal money to the project in his state. The project’s ballooning costs, now estimated at $98 billion, and lengthening timetable mean it’s doomed to be remembered as a boondoggle, he said in announcing his proposal in early February. Denham wants federal transportation aid for California to be spent on highways.

A week later, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood went to Sacramento, where his department has already devoted $40 million to ready the rail station for high-speed trains, to rebut the consensus House GOP view expressed by Denham. “Our highways and airports simply can’t handle the growth,” LaHood said. “At this make-or-break moment, America needs a transportation jobs bill that includes resources to continue building a high-speed rail network.”

It wasn’t the first time LaHood, a former Republican Representative from Illinois, has stood up for the White House’s vision of a new rail network. He’s likely to do so several more times this year because a fight over how much to spend on Obama’s vision in 2012 is a sure thing, even if the long-term surface transportation policy legislation veers into an impasse.

Although supporting federal public works spending has customarily been a solid political winner for legislators of both parties, the rise of the tea party has spelled big trouble for any infrastructure projects that aren’t roads or bridges: Bike trails, highway landscaping, commuter bus networks and subway systems have all joined intercity rail on the chopping block, especially in the House.

Not All Aboard

The same sentiment is on display in the states, too. Three Republicans elected governor in the GOP wave of 2010 — Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Scott in Florida — said they were rejecting their states’ share of federal high-speed rail funding, a move that boosted their small-government credibility as much as it underscored their opposition to the idea of fast trains.

But the Obama administration has remained defiant; LaHood announced, for example, that the $2.4 billion Scott turned back would be made available to others interested in pursuing their high-speed-rail visions — and 24 states and the District of Columbia have applied.

At a heated House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in December — labeled “Mistakes and Lessons Learned” about high-speed rail by Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) — LaHood took a boastful tone about the sustained interest across the country in the administration’s initiative and described the scramble for Florida’s rejected funds as “a testament to American enthusiasm for high-speed rail.”

Reallocating the Florida money isn’t the only thing the administration has been doing since last fall, when Congress voted to spend no new money in the current fiscal year on high-speed rail. It will be impossible for Obama’s national plan to approach fruition without a multibillion-dollar Congressional vote of confidence in each year of the coming decade, but LaHood has at least succeeded in providing funding at the margins, using his grant-making powers to support the preliminary planning work required before any huge build-out might begin.

In Michigan, for example, grants have been awarded to help speed existing service connecting Detroit and Pontiac to Chicago, while department officials have announced a series of upgrades along the corridor connecting Chicago and St. Louis; all are part of the original 1991 high-speed rail plan.

And Congress’ rejection in November of his fiscal 2012 request for a big down payment on the national rail network did not deter the president in February, when he sent a budget request to Capitol Hill that calls for spending $2.5 billion in fiscal 2013 and an additional $44.5 billion in the five years after that. But unless there’s a sudden sea change in the legislative branch, particularly among Republican budget hawks, the administration will be largely going it alone. At a Senate Budget Committee hearing just after Obama’s request came out, Republicans were quick to chide the president for making an expensive high-speed rail request so soon after his plan was voted nothing at all.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said she was unwilling to start the government on a path that could lead to a significant multiplying of the passenger rail subsidies that began with the creation of Amtrak four decades ago. Sen. Mark Begich at that point offered this rebuttal: “The point is: We subsidize all of it,” the Alaska Democrat said. “You name it, we subsidize it, because it’s good for business if we do it right.”

But unless a majority of lawmakers come to agree with that sentiment, which is certainly not going to happen before Obama stands for his second term, the administration will be left selling its proposals to the public, offering relatively small amounts of money at the margins and hoping the transportation politics of the next four years will be better. But not LaHood, who has announced that he will leave the Cabinet in January even if the president is re-elected.

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