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Opinion: Transportation funding bridges political divide

(The following column by Tom Belden appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on March 29, 2010.)

PHILADELPHIA — After watching months of rancorous debate over the health-care overhaul in Washington, it may come as a surprise to learn what Democrats and Republicans alike are thinking these days about spending money on transportation.

On health care, the two parties were incapable of agreeing on what to order for lunch. Yet when it comes to giving federal support to highways, aviation, and a new generation of faster passenger trains, members of Congress often put party affiliation aside.

That's pretty logical when you think about it. Every community, large or small, must have local streets and major highways. Most of them clamor as well for a modern airport and better rail service to move people and goods.

Few members of Congress are so parsimonious with taxpayers' money that they will vote against highway construction or an increase in Amtrak service in their district.

"The area of transportation infrastructure isn't a Republican or Democratic issue," said Anne Canby, a former Delaware transportation secretary and a leader of The OneRail Coalition, which represents freight and passenger rail, public transit, environmental, and labor groups. "We need transportation infrastructure to make the economy work.

"There is huge support for more trains," she said. "That fact alone will propel continuing investment in transportation, and particularly in rail."

Republican administrations over the last 30 years have done their best to restructure Amtrak into something less than a national rail service, or even kill it off and require states or regions to pay for passenger trains.

But after Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, President George W. Bush supported transportation legislation that gave Amtrak and other rail projects more funding than it had had in a decade and a more secure future.

Examples of more recent bipartisanship include a 93-0 vote in the Senate last week for a $34.5 billion, two-year Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. It took three years of continuing resolutions and haggling over various parts of the bill to reach a point where lawmakers could say, "OK, that's enough debate, let's just do it."

But Congress must do much more - it will take a long-term, multibillion-dollar commitment to support all forms of transportation.

Interest is especially high now in high-speed rail, since the Obama administration persuaded Congress to appropriate $8 billion in seed money last year for projects around the country as part of the economic-stimulus legislation. Congress added $2.5 billion for the projects this year.

That money is going largely to California and Florida to start building 200-m.p.h. rail lines, and to state and local agencies in 29 other states to upgrade existing tracks for 90- to 120-m.p.h. passenger service.

No doubt helping the high-speed rail effort is the acute embarrassment that leaders of both parties express when they return from trips to ride speedy new trains now spreading across Europe and Asia.

China has become especially aggressive in the last few years, devoting $300 billion to build an extensive internal high-speed network. The Chinese have even offered to build a 5,000-mile high-speed line across Russia to Europe, with trains linking Beijing to London in two days.

But will money - as much as $100 billion - be there over the next 20 to 30 years to complete a large U.S. network of fast rail lines, the way funds were found to build the interstate-highway system from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s?

Listening to speakers, including almost a dozen members of Congress, at a recent conference in Washington left me with the strong impression that funding will be there, using a combination of federal, state, local, and private investment.

The gathering, the Third Annual Transportation and Infrastructure Convention, was organized by Dean International, a Dallas public policy consulting firm that is leading an effort to build a high-speed line in Texas.

Many of the participants were mayors and other public officials from Texas and other Southern states, as conservative a group as you can find on most issues. But they share a keen interest in adding more rail service to what little they have now, and they don't seem to care much which political party helps them get it.

Most striking to me was to hear how much agreement there is between Reps. James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat, and John Mica, the Florida Republican, chairman and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Mica took a few potshots at Amtrak and Democrats in general, but he sounded much like Oberstar when talking about how they will work together to find the resources to support better rail service.
In an interview, Oberstar expressed great confidence that high-speed projects will have ongoing bipartisan support.

"President Obama touched a live nerve in our fellow citizens in their deep longing for intercity high-speed rail," he said. "Any city that's ever had it wants more . . . And the $8 billion is just the down payment."

Monday, March 29, 2010

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