Jonathan Cohn

Fast Train to Nowhere

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America's sorry transportation infrastructure isn't just a source of inconvenience. It's also a source of economic weakness, according to a new report written up in the Washington Post:

The United States is saddled with a rapidly decaying and woefully underfunded transportation system that will undermine its status in the global economy unless Congress and the public embrace innovative reforms, a bipartisan panel of experts concludes in a report released Monday.

U.S. investment in preservation and development of transportation infrastructure lags so far behind that of China, Russia and European nations that it will lead to "a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run." ... 

The experts also advocated the adoption of a distinct capital spending plan for transportation, empowering state and local governments with authority to make choices now dictated from the federal level, continued development of high-speed rail systems better integrated with freight rail transportation, and expansion of intermodal policies rather than reliance on highways alone to move goods and people.

The Recovery Act, of course, has a lot of transportation funding in it--with a particular emphasis on high-speed rail, the area in which the U.S. may be most conspicuously behind other countries. It's one of those investments that virtually many experts, on left and right, would agree is worthwhile.* But reasonable people appear to be in short supply in the Republican Party these days. From the New York Times:

Republicans running for governor in a handful of states could block, or significantly delay, one of President Obama’s signature initiatives: his plan to expand the passenger rail system and to develop the nation’s first bullet-train service. ...

In Wisconsin, which got more than $810 million in federal stimulus money to build a train linebetween Milwaukee and Madison, Scott Walker, the Milwaukee County executive and Republican candidate for governor, has made his opposition to the project central to his campaign.

Mr. Walker, who worries that the state could be required to spend $7 million to $10 million a year to operate the trains once the line is built, started a Web site, NoTrain.com, and has run a television advertisement in which he calls the rail project a boondoggle. “I’m Scott Walker,” he says in the advertisement, “and if I’m elected as your next governor, we’ll stop this train.”

Similar concerns are threatening to stall many of the nation’s biggest train projects. In Ohio, the Republican candidate for governor, John Kasich, is vowing to kill a $400 million federal stimulus project to link Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati by rail. In Florida, Rick Scott, the Republican candidate for governor, has questioned whether the state should invest in the planned rail line from Orlando to Tampa. The state got $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money for the project, but it will cost at least twice that much to complete.

And the nation’s most ambitious high-speed rail project, California’s $45 billion plan to link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains that would go up to 220 miles per hour, could be delayed if Meg Whitman, a Republican, is elected governor. “In the face of the state’s current fiscal crisis, Meg doesn’t believe we can afford the costs associated with new high-speed rail at this time,” said Tucker Bounds, a campaign spokesman.

Thanks to Ezra Klein's Wonkbook for citing these two articles, one after another--a juxtaposition I presume was not accidental.

*I originally wrote that virtually every expert thinks these investments are worthwhile. But, via several readers, I have learned that opinion on this subject is actually divided, at least when it comes to high-speed rail. I'll have more to say on this later. But, for now, you can read a rejoinder to me written by Charles Lane of the Washington Post.

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