November 10, 2013

Obama’s high-speed rail hopes stalled

Republican governors’ rejection of funding frustrates efforts in key regions of the country.

By Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post

MILWAUKEE — The gleaming red-and-white trains sit motionless in a cavernous warehouse in Century City, an industrial neighborhood that cranked out 100 million car and truck frames in its heyday. The seats are draped in plastic; an electronic screen on one reads, “Quiet Car. 11:10 a.m. 000 MPH.”

click image to enlarge

Corey Stacy, an inventory control worker, performs his daily duties last month at the Talgo plant in Milwaukee, where high-speed rail cars now sit dormant.

Photo for The Washington Post by Darren Hauck

President Barack Obama once hoped that these high-speed trains would be transporting passengers from Milwaukee to Madison, Wis., part of a broader system crisscrossing the Midwest and the nation.

But Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, rejected $823 million in funding that the federal government was offering, and the Transportation Department transferred the funds to California. The two trains now sit idle, with five employees of a Spanish manufacturer left behind to tend them.

High-speed rail was once a central part of Obama’s vision for government – one in which the nation’s infrastructure, schools and health-care systems would be modernized to meet the challenges of globalization and expand the middle class.

EFFORT SIDETRACKED

But the abandoned Wisconsin rail project, and several others around the country, illustrate just how difficult – and incomplete – the effort has been. Even as he managed to get the federal government up and running again this past month, Obama’s larger project of redefining what government should do has been stymied by steady Republican opposition and public disenchantment with political leaders. And chronic problems with the rollout of provisions of the new health-care law have made Obama’s sales pitch even harder.

While the high-speed project has made a tangible difference already in some parts of the country, key regions will be left out. In both the upper Midwest and Florida – two key planks of the president’s initial vision – residents find themselves without a viable high-speed option – and the manufacturing jobs that come with it.

“In terms of urban revitalization, this is the type of activity that would have generated good American jobs, and that would have provided work for people who needed work to support their families,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat and Obama ally who ran unsuccessfully against Walker in 2010 and 2012.

While Obama has framed the question in different ways over the past five years, he has consistently sought to convince Americans that well-run government is uniquely positioned to help secure their economic prosperity. After the 16-day shutdown ended last month, he argued that the impasse had affirmed the principle that “smart, effective government is important. It matters.”

“So let’s work together to make government work better instead of treating it like an enemy or purposely making it work worse,” Obama said.

One of the biggest ideas was Obama’s high-speed rail initiative, which since 2009 has invested $12 billion in 32 states and the District of Columbia. More than one-third of that total went to California; much of the rest went to projects that Transportation Department spokeswoman Meghan Keck described as “laying the foundation for high-speed rail,” which Congress defines as 110 mph and above.

When he launched the high-speed rail push in early 2010, Obama called it “the infrastructure of the future.”

“I mean, it’s important to repave our roads; it’s important to repair our bridges so that they’re safe,” Obama said that year in Tampa, Fla. “But we want to start looking deep into the 21st century, and we want to say to ourselves, ‘There is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can’t.’ ”

But three key states rejected the funding altogether. Florida, for example, was in line to receive $2.4 billion for a rail project. But Republican Gov. Rick Scott turned down the offer, as did Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, and Walker, dooming the initiative in those three states. The Transportation Department later gave more than $2 billion from Florida’s share to 15 states and Amtrak.

(Continued on page 2)

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