Thursday, February 12, 2009

Conflicted

Good news! Talking Points Memo reports that the conference committee version of the economic stimulus bill dramatically boosts spending on Amtrak and high-speed rail over earlier versions passed by the House and Senate. When the House and Senate approve differing versions of the same legislation, a conference committee with members of both houses meets to work out the differences before a final vote.

The new bill gives Amtrak receive $1.3 billion in supplemental grants. The House bill gave it $800 million, the Senate $850. The conference bill also contains $8 billion for high-speed rail corridors, bringing the total to $9.3 billion, compared with $1.1 billion and $2.25 billion in the House and Senate versions.

Now the bad news: The conference committee took out $6 billion for higher education. Disclosure: I work in higher education and my school has a "shovel-ready" project valued at close to $500 million. Hopefully it will still go forward.

Assuming passage of the legislation unchanged, this is a watershed development. As The Transport Politic notes:
This represents the largest single expenditure on rail in United States history and promises a new day for train travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation will lead the distribution of these funds; most of the money is likely to go to existing programs such as California High-Speed Rail, Midwest High-Speed Rail, and Southeast High-Speed Rail. States will get no supplementary money for rail programs, which implies that the bill’s writers want states to focus on implementing high-speed rail over standard-speed intercity rail.
However, not everyone is totally pleased. Robert Cruickshank over at the California High-Speed Rail Blog says: "The fact is that America needs more passenger rail period and needs a comprehensive program to implement them that includes high speed and non-high speed trains."

And the right-wing echo chamber sees dirty politics afoot. Citing the roll of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, in pushing for the increase, the American Spectator opines that the money will not go toward the high-speed corridors under development in California (San Francisco - Los Angeles), the Southeast and Midwest, but rather toward development of a maglev train from Southern California to Reid's hometown, gambling mecca Las Vegas.
"Reid's high-speed gambling train not only violates the President's guiding principles for this bill, it also violates American taxpayers."
But the conservative screed ignores other high-speed rail advocates on the Obama team, and I'm not talking solely about Vice President "Amtrak" Joe Biden. Over at The Takeaway, Andrea Bernstein reports that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is a big high-speed rail supporter, as is the President, himself. Also, one of the key players in the economic stimulus negotiations is Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA, who last year introduced a bill, along with Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, authorizing $8 billion for high-speed rail.

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