Obama Bets Big On High-Speed Rail Jobs Can He Make The Case

Bill Scher


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After President Barack Obama first invested in a national high-speed rail network, concerns persisted among some rail advocates that not enough funds were being committed to ensure it would really happen. The America 2050 coalition last year offered only limited praise, following the first disbursement of $8 billion in funds:

[This] represents less than 5 percent of what will be needed to build a truly national HSR system. In 1956, President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System, which was built over several decades in partnership with the states through a sustained funding commitment and a dedicated revenue source by the federal government. To realize a national vision for high-speed rail, a similar funding commitment by the federal government will be required.

But this week, after Vice-President Joe Biden announced the high-speed rail component of next week’s budget proposal would invest $53 billion over six years, America 2050 did not skimp on the praise:

[This] is an enormous step toward giving private investors, the manufacturing industry, and the states the assurances they need to get started on these ambitious high-speed rail projects. It clearly demonstrates the Obama Administration’s commitment to putting this program on the fast track to success.

This is a courageous move by the administration considering that high-speed rail took some lumps in the 2010 elections, with two midwestern gubernatorial candidates winning, and then following through, on promises to reject federal high-speed rail funds.

But both candidates combined misinformation about the rail projects with false claims they could use federal funds on other infrastructure needs, to win their races. After voters saw that money lost to other states, both governors are suffering from weak public approval ratings despite having barely served.

Furthermore, attacks of high-speed rail did not uniformly succeed — most notably in California. And several conservative gubernatorial candidates in states with rail projects chose not to prioritize the issue.

The President also received broad praise for the overarching theme of the State of the Union address: public investment in America’s future. With voters having a clearer understanding of the President’s vision, it’s possible that conservative opponents will have a harder time arguing that high-speed rail is some sort of boondoggle.

The highly regarded transit blog, The Transport Politic, also sees the President’s move on high-speed rail as high political stakes:

…this new funding, which would add up to $53 billion over the six-year period, is remarkable for its ambition. It is clear that President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, already being framed in terms of “winning the future,” will hinge partially on whether voters agree with his assessment of the importance of investing in the nation’s rail transport infrastructure.

Surely, Republicans will keep accusing the President of wasteful spending that won’t create jobs, and they wasted no time yesterday. They will ignore the studies that show that high-speed rail creates jobs and revitalizes metro regions by expanding labor pools, spurring tourism, reducing lost time in traffic, cutting pollution and encouraging development.

Conservatives will simply cite their own studies based on flimsy assumptions and ignore all the subsidies we currently spend on other forms of transportation.

The battle of competing studies tends to end in stalemate, regardless of merit.

But the President and his supporters will enter this argument with a clear vision for creating the jobs of tomorrow. The conservative austerity cabal has yet to offer the same. And that may end up being the difference.

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