Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Republican Civil War Spills Over Into The Battle For High Speed Rail And An American Future


I learned a lot about the relative economic development of India and China in Robyn Meredith's 2007 best-seller, The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us, and last year I applied one of those lessons to a post about India's newest airport. Meredith had used the pace of airport development in the two countries as a metaphor for the advances made in China and the plodding, endemic backwardness of India.

I bet anything that President Obama has read The Elephant And The Dragon, and that its lessons about infrastructure development were on his mind when he gave the State of the Union Address-- with its largely unheeded call for a Sputnik Moment-- last week.
Largely due to Chinese authoritarianism-- and Indian democracy-- China has surged light years ahead in infrastructure. In India, writes Meredith, "companies must navigate antiquated customs processing, variations in taxes and byzantine rules for transporting goods between Indians states in addition to the crumbling highways, decrepit airports, and what-me-worry ports... Progress on India's development projects is on again, off again, as if ambivalent India still can't decide whether it wants to be part of the modern world. The city of Bangalore's airport is a prime example. Originally built in 1942, the airport has changed little in the past sixty-plus years. It's white tile floors, poorly lit corridors, and shabby stained chairs-- needed for the long wait at the lounge conveyor belt-- make the airport look as if it belonged in the developing world. One might find a thin airport worker leaning against the wall, asleep, or another staffer eating his dinner at a table set up near passport control, not far from a neatly stacked pile of fifteen-foot-long tree branches. A rumpled red carpet, held in place with duct tape, shows the way outside, where a crowd of perhaps 250 people-- waiting relatives, taxi drivers, hotel touts-- mill about at nearly any time of night or day... The Chinese government's drive to build superior physical infrastructure-- tens of thousands of miles of highways and modern airports-- allowed China to dominate manufacturing exports. Without high-capacity, dependable modern infrastructure, the world's sophisticated supply chains simply don't work." Writing in 2007 Meredith pointed out that although "China's big cities already have new airports, the nation intends to spend more than $17 billion in order to build over forty additional airports by 2010."

U.S. infrastructure, part of a post-WW II economic boom, hasn't kept up-- and, in fact, has been starting to crumble for lack of upkeep. Obama is talking about a 21st-century explosion in high-speed rail, and the deranged and partisanship-above-nation-driven Republican Party is talking about ending spending. I dug up a two-year-old post about why China has managed to surge ahead while the U.S. stagnates. I'm tempted to republish it, but I'll leave it to you to hit the link and read as much of it as you'd like. I'll just point out an overtly political passage as a lead-in to what I want to write today about high-speed rail.
China is a partner in capitalism but not in democracy, not by any stretch of the imagination. A rare upside to their authoritarian government is that there is no formal obstructionism permitted to hamper the government in a crisis. They have no Grand Obstructionist Party in China. They have plenty of corruption on all levels, including at the highest U.S.-like levels, but without a political party actively working to see the government fail-- regardless of how that hurts the nation-- China has been able to act with far greater speed, agility and purpose to take defensive action against the global depression. While partisan hacks of dubious patriotism-- like Jim DeMint (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Richard Burr (R-NC), David Vitter (R-LA), John Boehner (R-OH), Eric Cantor (R-VA), Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Jeb Hensarling (R-TX)-- act with single-minded intensity to sabotage President Obama and prevent his program to rescue the country's economy from being enacted, China's government has acted with requisite haste to head the worst of the effects of the downturn off at the pass. This augurs poorly for the United States, although not for China's unofficial chief American lobbyist, Mitch McConnell.

Rabid right-wing ideological hacks like newly elected governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have turned down federal funds for their own states to build high-speed rail-- much the same way the ambitious right-wing governor of New Jersey sabotaged a much-needed new tunnel to New York for the same narrow-minded, reactionary reasons.
In a hearing this week, Republican Representative John Mica of Florida, the new chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Republican Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the subcommittee on railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials, called for massive public-private partnerships way beyond federally subsidized Amtrak to bring true high-speed rail to the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor. Shuster even used the “I-word’’ currently being flayed by many Republicans: “Failing to invest in the critical Northeast Corridor will ensure continued congestion.’’

But too many other Republicans want to derail everything. The new governors of Ohio and Wisconsin gave back $1.2 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail projects, campaigning against them as taxpayer waste. The Republican Study Committee, a caucus of 175 House Republican conservatives, wants to completely de-fund Amtrak and high-speed rail. Caucus chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio asked in 2009, “Why should we subsidize an industry that will directly compete with the automobile industry, which is so critical to our area?’’

Undeterred by such sentiments and the new Republican majority in the House, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry plans to file legislation in the next few weeks that would boost high-speed rail even more. His general plan calls for the development of a national high-speed railway system with spokes radiating up and down both coasts and across to the Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest. The legislation would provide for up to $20 billion in competitive grant funding for projects that deliver train speeds of at least 110 miles per hour and incentives and preferences for projects that can deliver speeds above that.

Unfortunately, there are more Republican officeholders in power like Florida's crooked governor Rick Scott than like somewhat more sensible congressional realists John Mica (R-FL) and Bill Shuster (R-PA). Mica desperately wants high-speed rail in Florida, while Scott opposes it:

Mica, whose Florida district would benefit from the rail project, is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and he said he's "pleased that President Obama has helped to launch a system for improved passenger rail service for our nation." Shuster of Pennsylvania is another booster of the plan regardless of the partisan divide. "I believe it's good for America to develop a high-speed rail corridor in the Northeast corridor. It's a place we have to start. We have to accomplish it, because then I believe all of America, in the various corridors around the country, will want high-speed rail if they see success here."

Many of their fellow Republicans are eager to support it as well, but campaign strategists under Boehner and McConnell are urging Republicans to stick with their obstructionist policies and to deny Obama any victories, regardless of how it impacts the country. Obama, along with both the business community and labor unions, may be talking about investing in the country's future; the GOP doesn't see beyond the 2012 elections and their own careers.
Dan Smith, a transportation associate with U.S. PIRG, said the president showed a willingness to make big compromises in the lame-duck session, and that could be a model for transportation policy.

"I think infrastructure could come in, in the form of a compromise where members of Congress from both parties see that it's in their interest" and will help the people in their districts, he said. "There's no such thing as a Democrat or Republican road project or rail project."

In the Republican response to Obama, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said all the president's initiatives, including the stimulus bill, have brought the nation to the brink of fiscal breakdown. Ryan said Obama has increased spending on domestic government agencies by 84 percent, including the "failed stimulus" that included spending on rail, highways and transit.

"All of this new government spending was sold as 'investment,'" Ryan said. "Yet after two years, the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent and government has added over $3 trillion to our debt."

Nonetheless, David Goldberg, communications director for smart-growth group Transportation for America, said fissures will eventually form between Republicans.

"Frankly, there are a lot of Republicans that represent unions and districts that really want that congestion relief from a new rail line," he said. "I'm just saying that they're out there."

Labels: , , , , ,


At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The founding fathers didn't have high-speed rail. Clearly this shows this Democrat perfidy is nothing but a socialist travesty against the constitution. Fuck the future! I want my warm blanket of the golden past.

At 1:28 AM, Blogger Richard T said...

Yes and about 50 years ago that wicked old liberal Galbraith wrote eloquently about private affluence and public squalor. No change there then.

At 5:46 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I think it matters a lot where you are located. HSR makes a lot of sense in the densely populated Northeastern areas but in California it's a total boondoggle. They haven't even found a route into the SF Bay Area or LA but they are cramming what is supposed to be the first leg down the throat of the Central Valley, closing down hundreds of businesses and farms, all to hurry up and use some federal money when they have no idea where the $100 Billion to build the rest of it is going to come from.


Post a Comment

<< Home