RIP, American High Speed Rail

Obama's $8 billion effort to kickstart high speed rail development across the nation, beloved by cleantech and transit enthusiasts everywhere, has more or less collapsed. Two weeks ago, Congress voted to strip most of that funding from the budget, leaving only a few projects to continue. RIP, HSR. Slate has a piece up today examining the demise of American high speed rail, in which he hones in on the bungled execution:

"Rather than focus on the few corridors that need high-speed rail lines the most," Oremus writes, "the Obama administration doled out half a billion here and half a billion there, a strategy better-suited to currying political support than to addressing real infrastructure problems."

Indeed, $8 billion dollars is barely enough to complete one single HSR line, let alone the 10+ proposed corridors. Obama's intention was indeed to "curry political support": by bringing jobs and investment to the regions hardest hit by the economic recession. Namely, the rust belt states and Florida, which suffered more deeply from the housing crash than almost anywhere else. The goal was to rustle up private investment to match the public funds, then, to stimulate the economy by building a piece of infrastructure that would also help reduce congestion, wear on highways, and lessen air pollution. And sure, Obama's team assumed (wrongly, as we'll soon see) that they would be rewarded politically for helping to stimulate those areas.

Everyone loves to bring up high speed rail's apparently bloated price tag--hundreds of millions of dollars is a lot for a rail corridor that will create only tens of thousands of jobs. But such gripes inevitably fail to consider the cash saved elsewhere--the longterm reduction in healthcare costs thanks to less air pollution, the saved costs in highway repair (as well as avoidance of the construction of new ones altogether). Aslo, it's still, frankly, a lot of new jobs.

And no, some of the proposed projects weren't super-fast high speed rail, as defined by European standards (which I do think was a mistake). But those slower lines in Ohio and Wisconsin were chosen because they were more "shovel-ready". They would make use of already-laid freight rail lines to expedite construction, getting more unemployed workers on the ground faster. Remember, HSR was intended as a stimulus project first and foremost.

So why didn't it work? It comes down to politics. The Obama whose administration that devised the scheme for the initial rail corridors--which run primarily through red and swing states--was the Obama who still genuinely believed that he could usher in an era of bipartisan cooperation. We all know how that worked out; the GOP instead uniformly rallied against each new idea Obama proposed (starting, coincidentally, right after the stimulus bill was passed), and stonewalled his agenda at every turn. With the help of the Tea Party, they adopted the message that government spending should be our primary concern, not economic recovery.

High speed rail became a prime target, a signifier of frivolous federal investment. Attacking HSR worked as an easy euphemism for any conservative who wanted to show their constituents they were staunchly against a) government bloat, and b) Obama himself. Hence the cascade of anti-HSR sentiment across the GOP.

To put it simply, Obama was unprepared. He had no counterattack ready, nobody organized to extol the virtues of HSR on cable TV; he lost the messaging battle. As with climate change, he never bothered to explain to the American people why these projects were so important. Here he was, after all, trying to give money to states so that they could create jobs by building a cool new infrastructure project that would be a long-term boon to the economy. Why on earth would any governor reject that funding outright?

Obama had quite simply underestimated the lengths that his opponents would go to win political battles against him. He had no idea that Republicans would end up becoming a party that would filibuster his routine appointments, hold the debt ceiling hostage on principle, or reject jobs projects in states with high unemployment. In some ways, Obama was naive. He should have been ready to stump for his legacy projects; he should have been able to explain how his stimulus efforts would lead to jobs and prosperity. He was clearly as flabbergasted as the rest of the progressive sphere that the national political narrative turned to "the evils of outsized government spending" instead of "we need jobs, like, now" as the Tea Party and an emboldened GOP dominated news cycles after news cycle.

But make no bones about it; the real culprit behind the murder of American high speed rail is an extraordinarily successful conservative political campaign that managed to convince the nation--for a time--that government bloat was the cause of all our ills. It's also worth noting that we may not need mourn for long. A truly high speed rail line is still (sluggishly) being built between San Francisco and Los Angeles in California. And as the political narrative moves back towards job creation (thank you, Occupy Wall Street), the mood for investing in infrastructure projects could soon improve. High speed rail, in other words, may not be dead for long.

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