Rejecting High Speed Rail Hurts the US Middle Class


Image: Fastlane, US Transit Dept.

In case you haven't heard, there's a weird political war going on over high speed rail: Three governors have flat-out rejected funding to build projects in their states, primarily to buck Obama, who's made rail his legacy project, and to flaunt their alleged dedication fiscal austerity. Then, conservative intellectual George Will wrote a bizarre column asserting that supporting high speed rail was a form of liberal mind control. Today, the federal government had to take back the funding it dedicated to rail in Florida, after Governor Rick Scott denied it. But all of this wrangling just obscures the fact that each of these projects would have powerful and immediate benefits: they would create thousands of jobs, and act as regional stimulus for depressed areas that could use the help right now. In fact, denying these high speed rail projects is a major detriment to America's middle class.Transit Secretary Roy Lahood has an op-ed in the Hill today, where he writes: "People often ask, 'Why are President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden so devoted to high-speed rail?' I have a simple answer: Jobs, jobs and jobs." From there, he gives the standard case for rail-as-stimulus: Investing $10 billion in rail would create 85,000 jobs, and approving Obama's 6-year plan would create 500,000 more. (Those numbers come from the Council of Economic Advisers)

And that's all well and good -- if you follow the high speed rail debate at all, you've surely seen these kinds of numbers trotted out: X amount of investment will create X jobs! And so on. And it's true -- those numbers are pretty nice-looking. But numbers don't sink in; they remain abstract statistics that don't really help anyone visualize the impact high speed rail might have on different parts of the nation. But the next segment of LaHood's op-ed offers a picture of the rippling economic impact rail would actually have:

30 rail companies from around the world have pledged that, if selected for high-speed rail contracts, they will hire American workers and expand their bases of operations in the United States. That is welcome news for Rust Belt communities with shuttered manufacturing facilities. And the administration's 100 percent "Buy America" requirement will generate a powerful ripple effect throughout the supply chain. Factory workers will build locomotives and cars. Engineers will grade new routes. Conductors, operators and ticket-takers will bring passengers on their journeys. Americans of every trade will advance down the track to a better future.

Yes, it's political cheer-leading, but it's also a pretty accurate description of what healthy investment in rail would actually do -- these projects would, in the short-term, create a large, diverse batch of jobs in areas that could use the boost (and, of course, eventually bring a host of other benefits, economic and environmental, in the long-term). And that's not just the finding of LaHood or the Council of Economic Advisers -- numerous non-partisan studies have confirmed that rail projects would be effective in creating thousands of good jobs.

Which is why the governors' rejection of rail projects amounts to another slap in the face of the American middle class. At the same time that these same state politicians are finding room in their budgets for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, they deem it too fiscally imprudent to accept federal funding for rail that would create much-needed jobs for hard-hit sectors like construction. Yes, the states would have to pony up some of their own money, too -- at least, eventually -- but studies indicate that despite the noise made by detractors, rail will be a profitable enterprise. The Florida line, for instance, would operate at a surplus its first year in service.

For these governors, denying rail projects has nothing to do with actual fiscal austerity -- and everything to do with winning political points by rebuffing Obama and making a show of cutting supposed 'wasteful spending'. But the truth is that their decisions are causing the middle class to lose out big time -- both now, and in the future, when millions of Americans would benefit from less congestion, cleaner air, new economic development along corridor lines, and more comfortable, sustainable long-distance travel.

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Tags: Transportation | United States

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