Railway projects boost Obama transit push

Supporters of President Obama’s push to build more railways in the United States are hoping that a pair of high-profile approvals will help get the president’s beleaguered rail effort back on track.

After a string of setbacks for Obama-backed rail proposals since the 2010 elections, lawmakers in California and local officials in Northern Virginia last week gave the green light to controversial railways identified by the Obama administration as critical transportation projects.


The railways — a high-speed line in California and an extension of Metrorail in the Washington suburbs — were approved after months of contentious debate in the jurisdictions where the trains will operate. Both projects have received money from the Obama administration but looked touch-and-go before they were ultimately approved last week.

Rail supporters said they’re feeling the wind at their backs.

“It’s kind of like baseball. You have a big win, you feel good and it gives you a spark to keep winning,” said Art Guzetti, the vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association. “Everyone feels good. You feel like you got past the test and now you can move forward to building the projects.”

Guzetti noted that despite the focus on Republican governors in states such as Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio who turned down high-speed rail money, more than 30 states are moving ahead with rail proposals.

He said the victories in California and Virginia could help change the impression that states are turning away en masse from rail projects.

“Big news out of California. Good news out of Loudoun County [Va.]. And Friday you had the president signing the transportation bill,” Guzetti said. “You put all that together and you had a pretty good week.”

Early last week, it was uncertain whether the California high-speed railway or the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport would ever see the light of day. When President Obama awarded $8 billion from the 2009 stimulus package to states that were proposing to build high-speed railways, California received more than $3 billion, more than any other state.

The Obama administration separately gave $900 million to the Metrorail project, which is already under construction and is one of the largest transportation projects in the nation.

Republicans in Congress and in Virginia and California have questioned the viability of the projects, however.

The House approved an amendment earlier this year to prevent any of the money in a surface transportation bill from going to the California railway.

At the same time, Republicans in Loudoun County, where the new Metro line will culminate, threatened to opt out of the Dulles airport extension over labor rules for construction of the second half of the project.

Smart Growth America Leadership Institute President Parris Glendening said there were definitely reasons for rail supporters to cheer the approvals. But most of them stem from the fact that the decisions were not being made by Congress, he said.

“Unfortunately, I’m not at all confident the tide is changing at the national level,” said Glendening, a former governor of Maryland. “They seem to have [drawn] hard lines and become more polarized in their positions against … significant investments in rail.”

By contrast, he said, local governments tend to view rail projects through a less partisan lens than conservative activists who have referred to President Obama’s rail proposals as “ObamaRail,” a pejorative that plays off the “ObamaCare” nickname for the president’s healthcare law. 

“I think there is a fairly significant tide going on at the local level,” Glendening said. “Local officials have their ear closer to the ground and they see that the public is generally supportive of rail. Since 2001, there have been 300 [rail] referenda that involve some kind of a tax increase, and 77 percent of them have been approved.”

Glendening is familiar with fights involving local Washington, D.C., area jurisdictions and Metrorail construction. As Prince George’s County chief executive in the late 1980s, he negotiated settlements to legal battles that held up construction of the system’s Green Line in suburban Maryland for years.

He said on Monday that Virginia’s current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, should be applauded for lobbying for construction of the Metro system’s extension to Dulles Airport. McDonnell, a rumored possible vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, pushed the all-Republican Loudoun County Board of Supervisors to vote for the rail line after the labor language surrounding the construction of the project was changed to his liking. 

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also lauded the approval of the rail projects last week at the end of a busy week in transportation.

“A pretty good week: sesquicentennial of Pacific Railway Act, #4thOfJuly, @whitehouse #transpobill signing, CA high speed#rail,” LaHood said in a late Friday evening tweet after the final votes in California.

LaHood has doggedly made the case for the president’s rail initiatives in the face of staunch opposition from Republicans with whom he used to serve in Congress.

He said in a statement last week that he hoped the California vote was a harbinger of rail approvals to come.

“No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows,” he said. “Californians have always embraced bold visions and delivered public projects that chart the way for the rest of the nation; [Friday’s] vote continues that tradition of leadership.”

But contrasting the votes in California and Northern Virginia with the contentious negotiations in Congress over the recently approved surface transportation bill, Glendening said on Monday, “[W]e had to fight like crazy just to keep the transit situation neutral.”