Conservatives home in on 'ObamaRail'

“ObamaRail” is fast becoming the new “ObamaCare” for many Republicans.

Conservative activists are deriding the high-speed rail proposals set out by President Obama in his State of the Union address and 2012 budget as wasteful spending that imposes new mandates on cash-strapped state governments.

“Look, you look at the studies of these things, when they get built, [they] cost way more than they think,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a Fox News interview shortly after he rejected $2.4 billion for a railway connecting Tampa and Orlando.

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The Republican governor also said states get stuck with the costs of operating the new railways once they are built. “Who is going to take responsibility for that,” he asks.

The fight over high-speed rail loudly echoes the battle over healthcare, with Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio also making big shows of rejecting federal money.

The vehemence of Republican critics has surprised even some Republicans, who say transportation issues used to find more bipartisan support.

“This is the most significant headwind we’ve had in 50 years,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, was criticized after being elected ACU chairman for supporting the Florida rail project so many staunch conservatives there hated. 

He said advocates for rail transportation spending have been caught off guard by the backlash.

“It’s a headwind that caught (rail) smack in the face. It’s being looked at from a standpoint of ‘hey, if we don’t need to build it today, let’s not do it,’” said Cardenas, who has registered to lobby on behalf of high-speed rail, putting him at odds with the Florida Republican Party he led under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In the past, it was possible to build a consensus between Washington and state governments on infrastructure spending, Cardenas said. “It was a matter of dollar separation, not where you [are] doing something or not.”

Transportation budget negotiations between the House and Senate “were the easiest conferences to attend,” he added.

Not anymore.

One of the first budget proposals to emerge from the new House Republican majority was to cut $1 billion in high-speed rail spending this year.  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has taken to Capitol Hill to defend the projects, but has faced hostile congressional committees.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said the increased partisanship of rail politics is Obama’s fault.

He said the White House screwed up by pushing for more high-speed rail investments in places where rail transportation is less popular. As a result, the administration is being stung by criticism that the proposed funding is wasteful spending.

“I don’t see it as a partisan at all,” Mica said of the rail fight. “I see it as the administration flubbed its job. I’m a Republican and I’m one of the strongest supporters of high speed rail.”

In an interview, Mica said the administration should have concentrated its rail efforts on the densely-populated northeast corridor. He added many of the projects proposed by the Obama administration are not truly high-speed.

Instead, Mica said, they barely increase the speed of existing Amtrak trains, which are already heavily subsidized.

“The problem is that there were 78 awards and Amtrak hijacked 76 of them for their Soviet-style train operation,” he said. “They made very unwise choices and set the high-speed rail effort back in the United States. It’s sad.”

Mica pointed out that only this month the Department of Transportation designated the Northeast as a federal rail corridor. Prior to that, the DoT had argued the Northeast did not need the designation because it had already developed railways.

The decision means the Northeast will more easily be able to compete for the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds that were rejected by Scott. Lawmakers from the region had long pressed the Obama administration to make the change.

“So many people along the northeast corridor are wondering what in heaven’s name is the administration thinking giving away limited money on marginal projects,” Mica said. “Congress and the administration threw huge amounts of money in the name of high-speed rail for snail-speed service.

“Even the most learned observer could smell a rat,” Mica continued.  “You’ve got to do it where it makes sense, then it’s bipartisan.”

Some rail supporters are unconvinced.

American Public Transportation Association President William Millar said Obama would likely have been criticized no matter which rail projects he proposed.

“It’s fashionable today to take every issue and rip it apart in a partisan way,” he said. 

“It’s a very difficult time to be a leader trying to lay out a great future for the country. I’m not trying to sound like a defender of the president, but just as an observer of politics, opponents of the president are going to use whatever they can.

“The era we live in, nothing is off limits,” Millar concluded.

Millar noted that the federal push for high-speed rail began when President George W. Bush signed the Passenger Rail Investment Act, not when President Obama talked it up in his first State of the Union address.

“Republicans have a long history of supporting infrastructure projects,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t change.”

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