Amtrak passenger train i 1978.

$50 billion for roads, rails and runways meeting opposition from GOP

If you've ridden a train any time recently in the United States, you've probably noticed that the nation's passenger trains are, by and large, slow, loud and late. Sure, there are regional pockets of decency in the nation's rail infrastructure, but the country's only high-speed rail link, the Acela Express between Boston an Washington, D.C., is still not cheap -- and when compared to the fast trains in Europe and Asia, not all that fast either. Essentially, the nation's rail infrastructure is stuck in the 1970s.

Speaking in Milwaukee on Labor Day, President Obama outlined a $50 billion transportation infrastructure plan that would not only invest in roads and runways, it would work to integrate high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program.

To ensure a sustained and effective commitment to a national high speed rail system over the next generation, the Administration's plan would construct and maintain 4,000 miles of rail – enough to travel from coast-to-coast.

"We’re talking roads. We’re talking bridges. We’re talking dams, levees," said President Obama. "But we’re also talking a smart electric grid that can bring clean energy to new areas. We’re talking about broadband Internet so that everybody is plugged in. We’re talking about high-speed rail lines required to compete in a 21st century economy."

The President’s plan would also invest in a long-overdue overhaul of Amtrak’s fleet.

"I want to get down from Milwaukee down to Chicago quick," Mr. Obama told attendees of the Milwaukee Laborfest last week.

Competitive funding via the 'New Starts' program

The White House describes President Obama's infrastructure investment plan as a two-part proposal that would include both an initial $50 billion investment in projects and the renewal of the six-year surface transportation infrastructure bill that has been overdue for reauthorization for a year.

Projects eligible for New Starts funding include but are not limited to rapid rail, light rail, commuter rail, automated guideway transit, people movers, and exclusive facilities for buses (such as bus rapid transit) and other high occupancy vehicles.

Many parts of transit systems have been allowed to fall into a state of ill-repair. The President’s plan would help address this by making a major new investment in the nation’s bus and rail transit system.

According to the president’s plan, high-speed-rail funding would be integrated into the surface transportation bill for the first time.

The Administration says it is committed to expanding public transit systems and would dedicate significant new funding to the “New Starts ” program, a a “Race to the Top”-style program that would inject competition into the process of allocating funding for "locally planned, implemented, and operated major transit projects."

The (unchanging) politics of passenger rail

But the proposed $50 billion transportation investment, to go along with the $10 billion in stimulus already earmarked for high-speed rail corridors, has many Republicans voicing strong opposition to the plan.

"If we've learned anything from the past 18 months, it's that we can't spend our way to prosperity," House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

"We don't need more government 'stimulus' spending — we need to end Washington Democrats' out-of-control spending spree, stop their tax hikes and create jobs by eliminating the job-killing uncertainty that is hampering our small businesses," said Boehner.

The question many Americans have when they travel overseas and ride on high-speed rail networks is, 'why can't we have trains like this?' The answer is a pretty complex one, but to put it simply, it is because of our fascination with privatization and an irrational fear of government -- a fear that thanks to right-wing radio and telepundits seems to be gathering momentum.

The good thing about politics is that public opinion is often fleeting and things are not always as they seem.

[Portions of this article were originally published at Celsias]

Photo: Some rights reserved by Hunter-Desportes

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