September 2010

Rail races to watch in November

by Cliff Henke

At the state level, candidates are railing against high-speed rail projects, even those that successfully received federal money.

In the last column, I mentioned that the current political situation is similar to 1938 and 1994, when the president's fiscal policies were being opposed by those who pushed for less spending and lowering the deficit as ways out of the economic hole. In the mid 1930s, the Roosevelt administration's big programs had worked, but only to a point. The critics got their way, and a second recession in the late 1930s was the result. This backlash scenario is at work again in key political races at both federal and state levels this fall.

Harbinger of things to come

In the congressional mid-term elections, Republicans are campaigning against both the health care legislation as well as the 2009 stimulus bill, even the parts that were for infrastructure spending. As a harbinger of what could come if they succeed in winning back control of either the House or Senate, their proposal for "paying for" extension of unemployment insurance was to kill the unspent parts of infrastructure spending in the stimulus, including the high-speed rail program. The extreme rhetoric covered not just the unobligated (i.e. unawarded) funding but the unspent money, meaning even those funds that have been awarded to states and cities but not yet outlayed could also be affected by such a proposal, if enacted. It's a little unclear how this could be accomplished, since many projects with obligated but unspent funding have already broken ground. However, it gives you an idea of the extremity of positions in this election year.

Railing against rail projects

At the state level, candidates are railing against high-speed rail projects, even those that successfully received federal money. In Wisconsin, for example, Scott Walker, the Republican candidate for governor, launched a major attack against the intercity passenger rail project to extend the Amtrak Hiawatha line from Milwaukee to Madison. Walker has promised to stop construction if he is elected, and his campaign, which held an anti-train rally in Milwaukee, began running TV ads promising to stop the project and created a new Website (www.NoTrain.com).

Although not as strident as Walker, California's Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has also opposed her state's plans — the largest, most ambitious high-speed project in the country, and one of the largest in the world. She has not indicated how she would stop it, however, especially since voters have approved the plan, including nearly $10 billion in bonds. In addition, she proposes a cut in the annual state budget of $10 billion, particularly targeting public transportation, schools and health care.

And these are among the moderates in the Republican Party. Thus, this November represents an evolution of how the political class, and possibly voters, view high-speed rail and rail transit. One party clearly favors such investments, while the other major party for the most part favors further tax cuts over infrastructure investments. Some two dozen initiatives will also be on the ballot.

Whether the 70-plus percentage victory streak voters have given transit during the last decade continues remains to be seen.

 

 

 


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