LaHood lauds plan for national high-speed rails
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WASHINGTON -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich's rejection of federal high-speed rail projects isn't necessarily a death knell for a Pittsburgh-to-Cleveland rail corridor but it could mean a temporary "railway to nowhere" that stops before it gets to Ohio.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was adamant Wednesday in a meeting with regional reporters that decisions by Mr. Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to turn down high-speed rail funding will not impact surrounding states' chances to get hold of the $53 billion over six years the Obama administration is proposing as part of the president's budget, to be released next week.
Mr. LaHood compared the administration's goal of connecting 80 percent of the country via high-speed rail over the next 25 years to the interstate highway system. It will be done in increments, and the administration doesn't know where the money is coming from yet, but Mr. LaHood vowed it will get done.
"There was ridicule when they started building the interstate system when they built Peoria to Bloomington," Mr. LaHood said. "It didn't go anywhere except to Peoria and Bloomington. You know what now, though? Peoria's connected to Chicago and Bloomington's connected to St. Louis by the interstate. These things take time."
When asked directly about a much-discussed rail route from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, Mr. Lahood said he had a meeting scheduled this week about "some different corridors in that region."
"Our investments on high-speed rail have gone to the states," he added. "They provide the match money. And, you know, some of the members in this region are interested in high-speed rail, so we're going to talk about it."
Mr. LaHood, joined at the meeting by Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council, was just as vague when talking about how the funding would come from the newly tight-fisted Congress. Mr. LaHood said there will be no gas tax hike -- the traditional method of funding for transportation bills -- but didn't throw out any ideas on how to pay for the funding increases.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said he will freeze domestic discretionary spending. But his budget will increase transportation funding -- with $8 billion in fiscal 2012 going to high-speed rail -- because of its job-creating possibilities and the poor state of the nation's infrastructure, with cuts coming elsewhere, Mr. Furman said.
"The president had to make a set of tradeoffs, a set of difficult choices in an environment where the budget as a whole is very tough, is coming down," Mr. Furman said. "There are important areas where he chose to increase investment, transportation being one of them."
Republicans, who now control the House, have derided Mr. Obama's "investments" as just more spending at a time when the spiraling public debt must be brought under control. Mr. Furman countered that the president's bipartisan fiscal commission determined transportation funding should not be cut because of its importance.
Mr. LaHood, said he still hopes to get a transportation bill to Mr. Obama's desk by August -- even though the last Congress, controlled entirely by Democrats, was unable to pass a full reauthorization.
Key House Republicans -- including transportation chair John Mica and railroads subcommittee chair Bill Shuster of Blair -- have called the high-speed rail funds a boondoggle that could be better used in proven, high-traffic areas like the Northeast.
But Mr. LaHood insisted that a nationwide high-speed rail network was not only possible but essential for the country.
"This is a vision of the president to connect America," he said. "The same vision that President [Dwight] Eisenhower had about connecting America with the interstate. And what do we do? We did it. Because we do big things"
First Published February 10, 2011 12:01 am