domingo, 19 de diciembre de 2010
“IMAGINE,” Barack Obama instructed Americans last year, “boarding a train in the centre of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be, to rebuild America.”
For the citizens of Ohio and Wisconsin, at least, this vision seems destined to remain in the realm of the imagination for some time to come. Despite the enticing picture painted by the president, the incoming Republican governors of those two states see nothing but red ink when they hear the phrase “high-speed rail”. Their Democratic predecessors had seized on plans for whizz-bang new services and even persuaded the Department of Transportation to pay for most of the construction. But the incoming governors both argue that the projects are expensive boondoggles and have vowed to scrap them, even though that will mean the loss of $400m in federal funding in Ohio’s case and $810m in Wisconsin’s.
In several other states where the federal government is showering down money for high-speed rail, sceptical Republicans have denounced the idea. Rick Scott, the governor-elect of Florida, has said he will allow a planned line between Tampa and Orlando to proceed only if the state does not have to pay the final $300m needed for construction (the federal government is stumping up $2.1 billion). In California, Meg Whitman, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor, said the state could not afford a planned line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, despite an offer of $3 billion in federal help. But she lost, so the link will at least be started.
In some cases this wariness is justified. The Ohio service would be no faster or cheaper than driving the same route. California’s impecunious state government will struggle to find its share of the $45 billion project there. But the burden of paying $8m a year in projected running costs seems an inadequate reason for Scott Walker, the governor-elect of Wisconsin, to forgo the $810m that the Department of Transportation is offering to cover the cost of building a line from Milwaukee to Madison. By the same token, a route that links Disney World, a convention centre, two airports and two of Florida’s biggest cities sounds like a reasonable commercial proposition, especially when the federal government is paying most of the bill.
Yet high-speed rail has become an ideological issue, supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans with little reference to the specifics of any given project. The left views it as a near-perfect form of stimulus: creating “unoutsourceable” jobs; reducing congestion; making life easier for business; trimming carbon emissions and laying the foundations for a bigger and thus even more beneficial train network to come. Republicans, meanwhile, consider high-speed rail the physical embodiment of runaway spending, imposed from Washington by an out-of-touch elite despite its whiff of European socialism.
Only a successful project somewhere in the heartland will change this dynamic, argues Kate Gordon of the Centre for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank. But it is the most plausible ones which are currently facing the chop. Meanwhile, although Mr Obama has talked about increasing spending on infrastructure, that did not feature in his deal this week with the Republicans, and will probably fall foul of concerns about the deficit. It does not take a lot of imagination to see the president’s vision for high-speed rail idling in the political sidings indefinitely.