Proposed Cuts Would Curtail Plans for Obama’s High-Speed Rail Initiative

By Kathryn A. Wolfe, CQ Staff
Feb. 9, 2011

Feb. 9, 2011 - Republican budget cutters are aiming to halt President Obama’s high-speed passenger rail initiative, proposing to slice $1 billion from the account in the current fiscal year.

High-speed rail has been a signature issue for the president, who vowed in last month’s State of the Union address to bring 80 percent of Americans access to fast trains within 25 years. Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. unveiled a $53 billion plan for high-speed rail investments over the next six years, including $8 billion in fiscal 2012.

But Republicans have been hostile to the initiative since the 2009 stimulus (PL 111-5) set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail. A package of proposed spending cuts for the current fiscal year that House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., unveiled Wednesday would slash $1 billion from high-speed rail — equal to the total that Obama requested.

The government is operating through March 4 under a continuing resolution (PL 111-322) at levels in the fiscal 2010 spending bill, which appropriated $2.5 billion for high-speed rail. Roger’s preliminary spending plan did not include comparisons to current funding levels or fiscal 2010 spending, making it difficult to gauge the severity of the proposed cuts.

High-speed passenger rail was just one of the transportation spending cuts that Republican appropriators included in the hit list released Wednesday.

The plan would cut Amtrak spending by $224 million. The president recommended $1.6 billion for Amtrak in fiscal 2011, a $72 million increase from fiscal 2010 funding levels. House Republicans also would reduce spending on the Federal Aviation Administration’s new “NextGen” satellite-based air-traffic-control program by $234 million, which would provide substantially less than the $275 million increase over fiscal 2010 sought by Obama.

Democrats wasted no time in attacking Republicans for proposing big reductions in infrastructure programs that supporters tout as job creators. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., pointed out that the business community — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — largely backs federal transportation spending.

“We ought to seriously question the wisdom of axing investments that comprise not just the fat, but also the real muscle, of our budget,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He said the proposed cuts “sabotage efforts to increase efficiency of commerce, reduce fuel consumption, create jobs and bolster our nation’s economic recovery.”

During a Transportation Committee hearing earlier Wednesday, Democrats and groups representing a broad cross-section of the aviation industry panned Republican proposals to cut spending even deeper — back to fiscal 2008 levels.

“Every agency can afford to have cuts in certain areas,” said Jerry F. Costello of Illinois, ranking Democrat on the Aviation Subcommittee. But he said it’s important to “make certain that they aren’t areas that affect safety and security.”

Marion Blakey, FAA administrator under President George W. Bush and now a lobbyist for the Aerospace Industries Association, said rolling spending back to 2008 levels would kill jobs and damage America’s future.

“It’s false savings because in the long run it’ll cost us much more,” Blakey said. She said rolling out NextGen system by 2018 would save $22 billion, mostly because fewer delays would mean less fuel burned. But reducing FAA spending to fiscal 2008 levels, she said, would amount to a cut of $1.3 billion — the amount being spent this year on NextGen.

“It would really roll back and stop NextGen in its tracks,” Blakey said.

Even Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, R-Wis., expressed wariness about such cuts.

“We need to figure out some way of getting our house in order, but not doing it by eliminating the seed corn and the future,” Petri said.

But some of the committee’s freshmen took a tougher line than senior Republicans.

“The bank account is zero and our credit line has been tapped,” said Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack, who unseated the panel’s former chairman, Democrat James L. Oberstar, in November. “NextGen is an excellent system and I’d love to support it. But until the time that we have enough money — revenues — to do so, we can’t simply just throw money at the program.”

Battle Lines Drawn on High-Speed Rail

It's Biden and LaHood vs. key House Republicans.

by Fawn Johnson
Tuesday, February 8, 2011 | 12:40 p.m.

Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Ray LaHood unveiled details on their $53 billion high-speed rail plan today, and Republicans immediately tried to derail the plan.

The plan, unfurled at Philadelphia's historic 30th Street rail station, would spend the sum over six years. The goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years.
Biden and LaHood were immediately shut down by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., setting up one of the first tangible political battles between the White House’s infrastructure priorities and Republicans’ desire to cut spending.

It could be a long year of such tussles. The dispute over high-speed rail arose the same day Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., at an event sponsored by National Journal, threatened to deny funding for the Federal Communications Commission to promulgate its controversial network-neutrality rules.

Obama’s futuristic vision of infrastructure development—blanketing the country with high-speed rail and fast Internet networks—depends on the willingness of congressional appropriators to let the government work its will. So far, House Republicans are putting up roadblocks.

Mica and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., are skeptical about high-speed-rail spending. The committee is launching an investigation into previous spending on the project. Mica is concerned that previous grants were either sucked up by Amtrak or used for projects that don’t do anything to promote mass transit because they connect cities that don’t have well-developed intercity rail systems to accommodate the travelers.

Mica actually is more of a friend of high-speed rail than other Republicans who would rather see federal transportation money go to states as they see fit. Mica is a fan of railways for the congested Northeast corridor, and he appreciates investments in alternative transportation projects as long, he says, as they’re proven to have the ridership to justify them. By contrast, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has set his sights on the $8 billion that was devoted to high-speed rail in the economic stimulus package, hoping to rescind anything that’s left over.

The administration, meanwhile, is plowing ahead with its plan to create a broad network of federally funded rail projects. They are divided into three categories: “core express,” “regional,” and “emerging,” which is largely code for “very fast,” “fast,” and “a little bit slower.” The rail lines should all connect to one another and to intercity passenger rail networks in the White House vision.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised that by 2035, “our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” Access is defined as living within 30 miles of a high-speed-rail station or any railroad station whose trains connect at some point to high-speed rail. That’s a little less exciting than the president suggested. By the way, according to a Department of Transportation official, he meant 80 percent of the population, not 80 percent of the country’s land mass. And high-speed rail is defined as a train that can reach 125 miles per hour even if its average speed is lower.

For their part, Biden and LaHood have been something of a tag team since 2009.

Much of the stimulus money went through LaHood's Department of Transportation and Biden was in charge of overseeing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in its entirety. What's more, Biden has shown a decades-long interest in rail service.

He famously took Amtrak home to Delaware most nights during the 36 years he served in the Senate.

“In America, we pride ourselves on dreaming big and building big," said LaHood at the Philadelphia event.

The White House is proving to be very good at dreaming big. Republicans are proving equally good at dashing those dreams.