The Administration’s Infrastructure Problem

The Administration’s Infrastructure Problem: Ray LaHood likes to compare high-speed rail investments to Eisenhower’s Highway Act, but the comparison is somewhat inapt. Local resistance to HSR underscores this point. How can the federal government get people to care about rail when so few use it?

A high-speed train in Taiwan. flickr user jiadoldol

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Ray LaHood was not known for his expertise in transportation policy when he accepted the position as Secretary of Transportation, but you’d hardly be able to guess that judging from his frequent, passionate online outpouring about high speed rail, distracted driving, and the like. In the tightly-knit PR machine that is the Obama administration, Ray LaHood is the loose thread. He frequently twitters and updates his blog, which often have the unpolished feel of blog posts by people who aren’t, you know, part of the federal Cabinet. But unlike the wonkier, geekier folks in the Obama administration, LaHood is not afraid to put himself out there. He’s used to being on the stump.

In a recent post on his blog, LaHood goes after those who oppose High-Speed Rail. “Look,” he writes, “the people vowing to send this train back to the station are missing the boat, so to speak.” But the post is more than just confusingly mixed metaphors. LaHood explains that HSR will benefit America by bringing in manufacturing jobs, construction jobs, and of course, clean and efficient high-speed rail service. LaHood views the high-speed rail projects as just as transformative as Eisenhower’s Highway Act. “Can you imagine,” he writes, “if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said ‘No, thanks — we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere?’” Here, LaHood references the Republican gubernatorial candidates in Ohio and Wisconsin (and California) who are campaigning on stopping the proposed rail projects in their states. Paul Krugman’s most recent column in the Times is about the same issue: state governments that are rejecting federal dollars for rail projects.

But LaHood’s Highway Act comparison only goes so far, and unfortunately underscores the reason that people might oppose deficit spending on high-speed rail, while they would never do so with highways. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 allocated $24.8 billion — $201 billion in today’s dollars — to the construction of new freeways, and set up the Highway Trust Fund, where our gas taxes go to fund highway repairs and construction. Every American, at some point, pays into this fund, and benefits from it every time they drive on a freeway, never having to stop to flip quarters into a bucket. While HSR is getting much, much less money from the federal government — about $8 billion in grants — everyone will still have to pay for it, in tax dollars, and have to pay for it again when they want to use it. I know, this is very obvious stuff, but when you get a whole bunch of rail enthusiasts together, this point can get lost. Not everyone will be using this service, and the beneficiaries will mostly be business travelers and mobile young urbanites — the type of people you see waiting for the BoltBus outside Madison Square Garden every weekend.

This makes high-speed rail an easy target for Republicans on the campaign trail, trying to beef up their anti-Washington credentials. While I mocked Kathleen Parker for a few things last week, she was right to point out that the Red/Blue divide is largely rural/urban. So, a federally-funded project that benefits mainly urban areas is an easy punching bag for suddenly-austere Republicans, who would be absolutely mad to turn down the funding, should they win their elections. But as Gov. Christie of New Jersey has shown, by turning down federal funding for a second Hudson River tunnel, they just might. Let’s not forget though, that the 1956 Highway bill was not without its political problems, too, despite its relative inclusiveness.

But despite the fact that the Highway Act didn’t fly through Congress unopposed, at least there wasn’t local rebellion (that I am aware of) against the project. And this might get down to the political problem that place-based, metropolitan-focused projects will have for the administration. While they have done everything they can in many of their urban policy initiatives to encourage rural communities to apply — and they have been successful in doing so — there are some projects that, simply put, do not have direct benefits to rural communities. High speed rail is one of them. For suburban and rural older Americans who just want their Social Security checks and Medicare benefits, but no other government involvement or spending in their lives, HSR makes very little sense.

But the opposition, of course, isn’t just rural Tea Partiers, because that would be too simple. The city of Palo Alto, California has recently joined forces with other San Francisco Peninsula cities, filing suit against California High Speed Rail Authority to halt the $43 billion San Francisco-Los Angeles route. This has an element of historical irony to in, in my opinion, as Palo Alto would probably still be just a tall tree were it not for the largess of railroad baron Leland Stanford, who founded the renowned university there. The Peninsula cities’ suit cites concerns that the CEQA review of the plan inflated the projected ridership numbers, but some suspect that they are mostly concerned about their property values. This is the second irony here, atop the historical one, that the Silicon Valley rich are filing suit to halt the construction of the most efficient form of transportation technology from passing through their sleepy, leafy communities that were bought with tech money.

Subverting state economic and environmental interests to protect property values? There’s an app for that.

It seems that many Americans have forgotten about the economic development capabilities of infrastructure investment, which is a shame. But the administration is still trying to change hearts and minds. Just yesterday, they hosted a forum on infrastructure investment, where Obama reiterated many of his points from his Labor Day speech: that too many construction workers are out of work when there’s so much to be rebuilt; that America’s infrastructure is crumbling; and that we need an infrastructure bank to depoliticize these decisions.

While and Infrastructure Bank would certainly help, it still couldn’t — as far as I understand it — compel states and localities to build new infrastructure that they don’t want. Perhaps the Obama administration needs to trot out some more, patented Ray LaHood charm, to sell Americans who might not benefit directly from HSR on the idea. He’s stumping online these days, but maybe he needs to get out there and kiss some babies, because the bullet trains can’t do that.

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Tags: infrastructurelos angelessan francisco

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