Obama-GOP spending fight starts with rail

WASHINGTON -- In a preview of the epic budget fight that will kick off in earnest next week, the Obama administration Monday proposed a $53 billion plan for high-speed rail, and Republicans who control the purse strings said not so fast.

The quick clash over a relatively small item in a budget expected to total about $3.8 trillion that President Barack Obama will propose next Monday underscored how tough it could be for Obama and the Congress to agree on federal spending.

Obama wants to increase spending on such things as education, energy, research and the nation’s infrastructure. He calls them “investments” to help U.S. businesses speed goods and information, create jobs and compete against foreign rivals.

But Republicans who control the House of Representatives say that cutting such spending, not increasing it, is key to improving the economy. And Republicans who won governor’s offices Wisconsin and Ohio in November have rejected federal money already allocated for rail projects in their states.

The first clash came over the White House proposal to spend $8 billion in the coming fiscal year on high-speed trains, with $45 billion more coming over the following five years.

“If we do not, you tell me how America is going to be able to lead the world in the 21st Century,” said Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden, a regular train rider when he was a senator commuting to and from his home in Delaware to Washington, traveled by train Tuesday to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to pitch the benefits of the proposal to build high-speed rail lines or improve speed on existing lines.

He said the plan would focus on three types of rail projects: a national high-speed rail network with speeds between 125 mph and 250 mph; regional lines where speed would be increased to 90-125 mph; and lines with speeds as much as 90 mph that would link to higher-speed national or regional lines.

Outside the Northeast Corridor, which serves the densely populated region from Washington to Boston, most of Amtrak’s trains currently travel no faster than 79 mph.

Biden said the spending plan would build on $10.5 billion already allocated for rail projects -- $8 billion from the 2009 stimulus law and $2.5 billion in last year’s budget.

“These investments are already paying economic dividends in places like Brunswick, Maine, where construction workers are laying track that will provide the first rail service since the 1940s from Brunswick to Portland to Boston,” he said.

But that money was approved when the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives.

Republicans who chair key committees signaled Tuesday that the new GOP-controlled House will be much more skeptical, if not hostile, to taxpayer-subsidized rail.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the first $10.5 billion was poorly allocated, mostly to projects that aren’t what he considers truly high-speed.

“Rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested corridor in the nation and the only corridor owned by the federal government, the administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects,” Mica said.

Approving more money, he said, “is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.”

But Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes a slice of Manatee County, said there were cheers at the U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference in Washington, which she was attending at the time. She noted the business community of engineers, contractors and rail firms is eager to start a number of projects, including a proposed Tampa to Orlando line. Also in attendance at the conference -- Associated Industries of Florida chief Barney Bishop.

“What they told me is, this gives them even greater confidence that the funding will be available in the future,” Castor said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants the private sector to pick up some of the costs of the Tampa to Orlando high speed rail and Castor said she’ll be touting the economic benefits of both a construction project and a way to get commuters out of maddening traffic. The project is 90 percent funded, she noted.

“There may be some Republican leaders in Congress that are downplaying this, but on a bipartisan level back home, all across Florida, everyone wants the jobs and not to have us send that money to another state.”

A regional transportation agency had cautious praise for the proposal.

“We’re eager to know more of the specifics about what was announced today and learning how it will affect our region,” said Amy Ellis, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority’s communications director. “But we definitely welcome the president’s continued investment in transportation.”

The authority currently is developing plans for connecting transit service to and from the high-speed rail terminal in downtown Tampa.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the chairman of the panel’s Railroad Subcommittee, complained that the Obama administration has ignored a requirement for competition on money-losing Amtrak routes. He also said that Obama’s failed to show how he’s allocated money so far.

“I have no problem with sound investments in alternative transportation projects,” he said. “But selecting routes behind closed doors runs counter to the administration’s pledges of transparency. I am concerned that without appropriate controls to ensure the most worthy projects are the ones that receive funding, high-speed rail funding could become another political grab bag for the president.”

Obama’s also finding it tough to sell taxpayer-financed high-speed rail beyond Congress.

In Wisconsin, newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he’ll refuse $810 million from the federal government for a rail link from Milwaukee to Madison. In Ohio, new Republican Gov. John Kasich likewise said no thanks to $400 million in federal money already in the pipeline toward a rail line linking Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

The Obama administration has reallocated the cash from Ohio and Wisconsin to other states.

The largest recipients are California and Florida, getting roughly $600 million and $300 million respectively for high-speed rail projects.

-- Lesley Clark, of the Herald Washington Bureau, and Herald Staff Writer Duane Marsteller contributed to this report.