Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Ray LaHood unveiled details on their $53 billion high-speed rail plan today, and Republicans immediately tried to derail the plan.
The plan, unfurled at Philadelphia's historic 30th Street rail station, would spend the sum over six years. The goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.
Biden and LaHood were immediately shut down by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., setting up one of the first tangible political battles between the White House’s infrastructure priorities and Republicans’ desire to cut spending.
It could be a long year of such tussles. The dispute over high-speed rail arose the same day Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., at an event sponsored by National Journal, threatened to deny funding for the Federal Communications Commission to promulgate its controversial network-neutrality rules.
Obama’s futuristic vision of infrastructure development—blanketing the country with high-speed rail and fast Internet networks—depends on the willingness of congressional appropriators to let the government work its will. So far, House Republicans are putting up roadblocks.
Mica and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., are skeptical about high-speed-rail spending. The committee is launching an investigation into previous spending on the project. Mica is concerned that previous grants were either sucked up by Amtrak or used for projects that don’t do anything to promote mass transit because they connect cities that don’t have well-developed intercity rail systems to accommodate the travelers.
Mica actually is more of a friend of high-speed rail than other Republicans who would rather see federal transportation money go to states as they see fit. Mica is a fan of railways for the congested Northeast corridor, and he appreciates investments in alternative transportation projects as long, he says, as they’re proven to have the ridership to justify them. By contrast, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has set his sights on the $8 billion that was devoted to high-speed rail in the economic stimulus package, hoping to rescind anything that’s left over.
The administration, meanwhile, is plowing ahead with its plan to create a broad network of federally funded rail projects. They are divided into three categories: “core express,” “regional,” and “emerging,” which is largely code for “very fast,” “fast,” and “a little bit slower.” The rail lines should all connect to one another and to intercity passenger rail networks in the White House vision.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised that by 2035, “our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” Access is defined as living within 30 miles of a high-speed-rail station or any railroad station whose trains connect at some point to high-speed rail. That’s a little less exciting than the president suggested. By the way, according to a Department of Transportation official, he meant 80 percent of the population, not 80 percent of the country’s land mass. And high-speed rail is defined as a train that can reach 125 miles per hour even if its average speed is lower.
For their part, Biden and LaHood have been something of a tag team since 2009. Much of the stimulus money went through LaHood's Department of Transportation and Biden was in charge of overseeing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in its entirety. What's more, Biden has shown a decades-long interest in rail service. He famously took Amtrak home to Delaware most nights during the 36 years he served in the Senate.
“In America, we pride ourselves on dreaming big and building big," said LaHood at the Philadelphia event.
The White House is proving to be very good at dreaming big. Republicans are proving equally good at dashing those dreams.
This article appears in the February 8, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.