President Obama wants 80 percent of Americans to have access to some type of high-speed rail system within 25 years, a transportation network that will cost billions if it is built right. Obama’s request is likely to land with a dead thud on Capitol Hill because even under more flush budgetary circumstances, Republicans are looking to cut high-speed rail programs.
A new system of interconnected high-speed and inter-city rail “could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying, without the pat-down,” Obama said in his prepared remarks.
In the past two years, the White House has budgeted $1 billion annually for high-speed rail, in addition to $8 billion that was devoted to the program in the economic stimulus program. House Republicans have zeroed in on that $8 billion as one of their top priorities in reclaiming stimulus funds. They consider the high-speed rail program one of the most tangible symbols of unnecessary, top-down government spending.
Obama sees high-speed rail as a central component of a broad transportation plan that harkens back to New Deal-type spending. Rail is a faster, more efficient, and environmentally safer way of moving people from place to place. The only trouble is that it will take decades to build a city-to-city rail network that is robust enough to convince people to get out of their cars. Even without Republicans’ steadfast refusal to consider any form of government spending, marshaling that kind of investment over such a long period is a tall order.
Obama isn’t daunted. Last year, he asked Congress for an up-front investment of $50 billion for infrastructure, which he billed as an immediate vehicle for job creation. The request went nowhere.
Now, Obama is asking for both a short-term and a long-term commitment to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges and start developing a new network of rail systems. He still wants an immediate infusion of cash combined with a six-year reauthorization of surface transportation policy.
For the White House, it’s about job creation. For Republicans, it’s about spending. How they bridge that gap will be the source of the dialogue for the coming year.