Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Politics of High-Speed Rail, A Perspective

One of the points we have been making on this blog is that high-speed rail decisions reside in Washington.  We've pointed out that it will be resolved along Party lines, the Democrats for it and the Republicans against it. Also, in the blue states (like California) the government is for it; in the red states, against it.

The entire focus of both parties now is on the 2012 elections, both the Presidential and the Congressional.  Each side is cultivating its agenda, the Republicans having to appeal to their conservative base while the Democrats have to bring the Independents into their fold.

In the game of football, the football is merely the object that brings both sides into conflict.  The game is not about the football, it's about winning.  The high-speed rail project is one of the footballs in the game of politics over winning the government in the 2012 elections.

Seen from that perspective, the Democrats will continue to push for HSR as the vehicle for transmitting federal dollars to the key states that they will need to win the elections.  The Republicans -- note the states that have already turned down the ARRA funds -- are determined to deprive the Democrats a second-term President (for whom HSR is a high-visibility legacy and vanity "Vision").  The Republicans also wish to regain the Senate, as well as hold the House.  

The Republicans can claim that their HSR cutting is "deficit reduction," but actually, in the federal budget, all the seed-money/stimulus in this HSR effort is relatively trivial; both sides know that.  So, the Republicans are painting the Democrats as tax-and-spend, using such highly symbolic and visible projects as a boondoggle-HSR to help them with their attack politics.  

The Democrats want to help states recover some of their economic losses, especially since the White House has so far only managed to bail out Wall Street, but not Main Street.  So the Stimulus funds are intended to help Main Street USA, but also support all the Democratic candidates who will be running for election or re-election, beginning with the President.

Are you with me so far? The general wisdom is that if the labor market recovers and unemployment drops significantly, Obama has an excellent chance for a second term. Therefore, see Obama's two-fold purpose of high-speed rail.  One is to create jobs -- or at least the appearance of creating jobs -- and the other is to bolster states' bottom lines.  

California, a blue state, is not in good shape on either count.  So, since California has already sucked its voters into supporting the bond issue, having HSR success here will be a great token gesture showing how the Democrats are on the right track, so to speak.

California, as we know, has been treated with considerable generosity from the FRA and Ray LaHood.  They sent us funding for the Central Valley and thereby saved Congressman Jim Costa's election last November.

However, a large independent voter segment occupies the northeast corridor states.  Building, or at least promising to build, a northeast corridor high-speed train (to replace the Acela), is believed to be a great vote-getter for the President as well as for all the Senators (and Representatives) from all those northeast corridor states.  

Meanwhile, California support for all Democratic candidates is already assured in the next election.  But, a number of NEC states could be up for grabs. They will now demand the close attention of the Democrats.  Throwing HSR money in that direction may well be the next strategic step for the Democrats.

That's what this high-speed rail project is about.  It's not about upgrading transportation for rail passengers.  I strongly suspect that most people already know that won't be accomplished.  It's about the political game of football, with high-speed rail being the football.