Amtrak battle part of political differences
WASHINGTON -- More than 16,000 times Vice President Joe Biden took Amtrak between his home in Delaware and his job as a senator in Washington. So Republicans should not have been surprised when Biden dragged Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood up...
WASHINGTON -- More than 16,000 times Vice President Joe Biden took Amtrak between his home in Delaware and his job as a senator in Washington.
So Republicans should not have been surprised when Biden dragged Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood up to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to announce that the Obama administration wants to spend $53 billion on railroads.
But the Republicans were surprised -- and outraged. With a $14 trillion national debt and annual deficits of one and a half trillion dollars, they said high-speed trains are pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams. Actually, some of their words were much stronger. They immediately proposed slashing funds for high-speed rail that Obama seeks in his proposed budget as well as operating funds for Amtrak.
The Amtrak conflict is the perfect example of how differently the Democrats and Republicans see the role of government and how determined the GOP is to derail Democrats' dreams.
To Obama and Biden, high-speed trains offer a solution to the traffic-clogged East and West Coasts where commuters spend the equivalent of entire weeks of their year bumper to bumper. Just last month thousands of Virginians and Marylanders who work in the District of Columbia spent up to 12 hours trying to drive home when the federal government released workers early during a snowstorm. Gridlock ensued. It was horrible.
Obama has made high-speed rail service a signature of his administration. He wants to make fast trains available to 80 percent of all Americans within 25 years. He argues that Europeans, Chinese and others around the globe are going to out-compete us because of our transportation woes and dependence on gasoline-guzzling cars.
Republicans, splintered over many issues, are almost to a man and woman against pouring billions of tax dollars into high-speed rail cars and rail lines. They argue that if Americans want fast trains, private enterprise will provide them. Eventually.
Others say Americans are too much in love with their cars to leave them in the garage and take mass transportation to work.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who has been chairman of the House Transportation Committee for a month, put out a statement saying that providing more public money for high-speed rail is akin to "giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio." He said Obama's $10.5 billion down payment on high-speed rail resulted in "embarrassing snail-speed trains to nowhere."
The administration counters it's too soon to judge success or failure. While some of the money did promote relatively slow rail service in the cramped Washington-Richmond corridor, the largest chunk went to California and is still being spent.
Proponents of high-speed rail -- trains capable of routinely traveling at 220 miles per hour -- concede it's costly. Estimates exceed $600 billion. But supporters insist that would be offset by saved fuel and commuter time and improve our infrastructure.
Obama may well lose to Republicans on high-speed rail. Desperate to convince voters they are reducing the deficit and size of government, Republicans are determined to slash spending. House Republicans have targeted 60 programs for elimination including AmeriCorps, birth control funding, extra police presence in high-crime areas, safer drinking water, weatherization of existing homes and offices and public broadcasting.
Scientific research, environmental protection, food programs for mothers and children and road repairs for low-income communities all are slated to be dramatically reduced.
Republicans are well intentioned. But they aim to cut programs that make a difference to the quality of life in America while refusing to cut programs where the real money is -- defense and entitlements such as Medicare.
When this fiscal crisis is behind us (it will be, although not soon), we will be sorry for our shortsightedness.
As Biden said the other day in Philadelphia, "We taught the world (about transportation). If we don't get a grip, folks, they are going to be teaching us. They're going to own our kids."
Scripps Howard columnist McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail her at email@example.com .