Earlier today, Pat pointed out that Obama’s address about infrastructure and investment didn’t contain anything about rail or transit. It’s just the usual “roads and bridges.” It’s something we’ve often wondered about over the past few weeks: where’s the beef?
We here at TFA, along with practically every other blog about non-auto transportation, have been holding our breaths waiting for anything at all substantive about how the Obama administration is going to take advantage of this unique time to refocus attention on our overcrowded and underfunded transit systems. We latch onto the same non-committal comments from leaders. What’s the difference between Obama’s praise for a Midwest HSR network back in July and Biden’s comments at the National Governors Convention a few days ago? Only a few months and an election, really.
And we’ve seen all sorts of editorials recently about how excited people are about new rail investments. States and municipalities, hungry for transit dollars, have queued up in the breadlines with “ready to go” projects, but who’s to say everyone’s not getting all riled up about nothing? Do these local officials know something we don’t? My fear is that this new infrastructure investment opportunity will only benefit rail in the form of money trickling down from “highways and bridges.”
It seems to me that national politicians are afraid of proposing something so ambitious as a nationwide rail/transit investment. We’ve heard remarkably little about John Kerry’s HSR bill, and we’ve got our ears affixed firmly to the ground on these matters. The general public probably knows nothing about it. The problem is, in a country where everyone is forced to drive by necessity, that sort of spending can probably be easily characterized as liberal idealism, or just pork.
But in talking to people in both Tennessee and Minnesota, I’ve come to believe that people are fundamentally interested in passenger rail. They’d like to be able to get out of their cars every once in a while, but they just don’t think it’s convenient as it stands now. They’re also concerned about the massive monetary investment rail requires. But of course, we’re already spending $700 billion, why not put some of that towards a system that can improve quality of life, spur commercial development, and help our environment?
Barack Obama and Joe Biden are exactly the people who could raise these points, who can make a case for investing in HSR, Amtrak, and transit. And they seem to want to. You can feel it bubbling under their well-practiced political veneer. Maybe that’s enough. A more well rounded Secretary of Transportation and even a neutral administration would be a vast improvement. And if some of that “infrastructure” money is tagged for rail improvements, that’s good news even if it’s kept quiet. But much more progress could be made if our newly elected leaders would be bold enough to bring this topic to the foreground.