HIGH-SPEED RAIL: Bullet-train boosters fret as conservative tide swamps projects
When Florida Gov. Rick Scott put the final nail in his state’s high-speed rail project yesterday, he cited an economic burden to state taxpayers, a threat of construction cost overruns and a lack of ridership.
But to Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), the Republican governor’s decision had nothing to do with economics.
“The governor put his own rigid ideology ahead of the best interests of Florida’s businesses, workers and families,” Castor said last week, when Scott announced his intention to return the money. “Turning down these jobs and investment dollars does nothing to reduce the nation’s deficit.”
Castor is among a large number of bullet-train boosters who lament that their projects have become partisan footballs. Scott is the third Republican governor — behind Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich — to reject federal high-speed rail funds and join Capitol Hill Republicans in opposition to one of President Obama’s marquee initiatives.
“You tell me, what kind of businessperson would turn down 90 to 100 percent of funding for a project?” said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who derided the notion that Scott, a former health care executive, is casting himself as a businessman who’s above political maneuvering.
Meanwhile, House Republicans targeted high-speed rail in the budget debate last week, voting to slash all $5 billion in Department of Transportation funding for the program.
Freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) went further, proposing an amendment to bar federal high-speed rail funding from going to his home state. When he withdrew the amendment, he vowed he would “provide aggressive oversight” of the California project.
Mary Ellen Curto, executive director of the American High Speed Rail Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, said she had seen a shift in the discussion of rail since the Republican landslide of last November’s elections. Rail, she said, is caught in the Republican push to curb government spending.
“When I’m on the Hill, I can’t even talk about infrastructure as an investment rather than an expense,” Curto said. “There’s almost no plane where you can talk in business-type metrics. … There’s just such an emotional level around the $1.3 trillion [federal budget] deficit.”
Although there has traditionally been bipartisan support for infrastructure spending as a job-creation tool, the right has been slamming some of the administration’s latest public works proposals. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has emerged as a conservative leader on infrastructure ever since he canceled a planned transit tunnel backed by $3 billion in federal guarantees last November.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington last week, Christie dismissed Obama’s goals of building high-speed rail, enhancing wireless Internet and putting a million electric vehicles on the road as “the candy of American politics.”
“Those are not the big things,” Christie said. “Because let me guarantee you something, if we don’t fix the real big things, there are going to be no electric cars on the road. There is going to be no high-speed Internet access, or if there is, you’re not going to be able to afford to get on it.”
Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a trade group, said opponents of bullet-train projects are not merely partisan. They are “extreme,” he said.
“We don’t see this as a Republican anti-rail thing,” Kunz said. “It’s an extreme faction. There are a lot of Republicans that do support it.”
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) is on record supporting a rail network and was even caught on camera telling Obama after the State of the Union in January that he could be the “best cheerleader” for rail. But Mica doesn’t agree with the way the administration has distributed its rail grants, and has said that he would rather see projects built up in the Northeast Corridor.
Other House Republicans — notably, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — have supported rail, and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia has promoted a project for his state.
Kunz argues that opposing rail projects for budget purposes won’t help the economy now and won’t help get cars off the road and lessen U.S. dependence on oil.
“If you really look at the economics and get past their hyper-conservative rhetoric, we have to spend money right now to save the country,” Kunz said. “The country is sinking like the Titanic mainly because of high oil prices, and to cut spending on major technologies like high-speed rail that would reduce the nation’s oil dependency doesn’t help anything.”
Scott said he was concerned that cost overruns would cost Florida taxpayers $3 billion, a number also cited in a study by the libertarian Reason Foundation. But Scott rejected a plan yesterday that would have turned over the state’s sponsorship to a coalition of local groups (E&ENews PM, Feb. 24).
Given the difficulty of wooing Scott and other Republicans to support rail projects, Curto said her group is now aiming to rally public support.
“We can’t keep going with a two-year cycle of a mandate and an anti-mandate,” Curto said. “We’re going to attempt to get out to the population at large. If people are behind this, they need to get up and stop this nonsense.”