Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Where does the buck stop on HSR and Amtrak?

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That President Obama mentioned not a word on high speed rail or Amtrak in his State of the Union speech reflects on the rather dreadful manner in which his administration has pursued the presidential vision in support of expanded rail passenger service.

Extraordinary visions compel exceptional architects, constructors, and superintendents. Presidential visions of Lincoln to mend a nation divided, Wilson for a League of Nations, Eisenhower to construct our Interstate Highway system, Kennedy to reach the Moon, and Reagan to reduce nuclear arsenals and end the Cold War with the Soviet Union required and benefited from exceptional subordinates.

A grand vision absent intrepid and indomitable teamwork is but a pretentious hallucination, as we are seeing with President Obama's aspiration to advance high speed trains and extend passenger rail opportunities throughout the nation.

Obama handed the baton to his then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who The Wall Street Journal said had "no particular qualifications for the job," notwithstanding LaHood having been a member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee during much of his 14-year tenure as an Illinois Republican congressman from Peoria.

There were, of course, other credible candidates for the post, but Obama chose LaHood, a fellow Illinois politician who, while a Republican, had a big-spender reputation in Congress. From the get-go, LaHood caused eyes to roll, championing bicycles over automobiles ("This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized," he said, creating a sarcastic "pedal parity" marque); and then by sending Toyota stock-share prices tumbling by advising, following a Camry recall, that Toyota owners to "stop driving" (a comment he later sought to retract).

It was LaHood's shambling superintending of Obama's high speed rail vision that most defines his tenure as the nation's 16th transportation secretary. The bumbling helped to slow considerably, if not derail, Obama's vision: "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already under way."

In fact, LaHood failed to explore with the governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin the details of the Obama vision -- if there were, in fact, any details besides LaHood having dominion over $8 billion of taxpayer funds earmarked for high speed rail. In short order, the three governors embarrassed the White House by announcing they wanted not a penny of the money, as they saw no positive result in their already cash-strapped states of such federal spending, which was but pennies on the dollar of what high speed rail would actually cost to build and require in future operating subsidies, with further questions whether it would, in fact, be high speed.

LaHood went on to sprinkle billions more, accompanied by glowing press-release rhetoric -- "a strategy better suited to currying political support than addressing real infrastructure needs," said Slate magazine — and delivering scant results other than something far less than high speed rail in Illinois, where a project will increase Amtrak average speeds between Chicago and St. Louis from 53 mph to 63 mph.

California, where LaHood counted 55 electoral votes up for grab in the 2012 presidential election, received $3.2 billion for a proposed high speed rail project now on life support. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, already America's fastest rail speedway, received the bum's rush from LaHood.

Should we expect better from transportation secretaries? Yes, we should. Although there has been ineptitude in the past, there have been secretaries displaying a combination of aggressiveness and effectiveness that advanced a White House agenda to the applause of history.

President Johnson looked to Undersecretary of Commerce for Transportation Alan Boyd to erect the scaffolding creating the DOT, and then named Boyd its first secretary. Boyd's credentials were notable. As a member of the Florida Railroad & Public Utilities Commission, Boyd explored the effects of economic regulation in that state, leading him to conclude there should be a greater reliance on competitive market forces in the setting of rates and service levels. As a congressman, he warned that if profit-squeezed freight railroads were not allowed out of the passenger business, the passenger train "may take its place in a transportation museum along with the stagecoach and steam locomotive." Later was born Amtrak. As transportation secretary, Boyd administered the nation's first high-speed ground transportation program, and later became Amtrak's third president.

President Carter entered office with a vision of eliminating burdensome economic regulation and subjecting all modes of transportation more to market forces. Carter's secretary of transportation, Brock Adams, a former Democratic congressman from Washington state, endorsed a private enterprise solution for railroad financial problems, becoming co-author of the Regional Rail Reorganization (3-R) Act that directed a massive federal seizure and reorganization of the Northeast's bankrupt railroads, and creation of the U.S. Railway Association (the genesis of federally owned Conrail and its eventual return to private ownership).

As transportation secretary, Adams' support for rail mergers, easing of requirements for abandoning unprofitable lines and greater reliance on market forces helped to contruct the path toward passage of the Staggers Rail Act. As for Amtrak, Adams fretted that Congress' addition of so-called political trains following creation of Amtrak had caused Amtrak's per passenger deficit to almost triple, and recommended, in an effort to preserve Amtrak, scaling back the route structure by 43% (with Congress agreeing to a 14% reduction).

Obama chose as LaHood's successor the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Anthony Foxx, whose knowledge of railroads is mostly an empty slate. In a recent test, as reported by Politico, Foxx chaired a meeting with the Association of American Railroads and the American Petroleum Institute (API) to discuss tank-car safety improvements to make the transport of crude oil by rail safer. The Railway Supply Institute, whose members build and retrofit tank cars, complained it had been excluded from the meeting -- that "its request to attend the meeting was denied by DOT" -- while the API disputed Foxx's public characterization of what took place at the closed meeting.

In a prepared statement following Obama's State of the Union speech, Foxx, as had Obama, declined to mention high speed rail or Amtrak, saying only he would be "working thorough the year from the federal to the local level to build more infrastructure while growing jobs now and making more jobs possible with first-rate transportation networks." He provided no details.

Could Obama have chosen a more qualified transportation secretary to succeed the problematic LaHood?

Notwithstanding his ability to test sorely the attention of the most patient Catholic priest with his discursive oratory, former House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), now departed from Congress, has a most extensive and encyclopedic understanding of aviation, highway, rail and transit issues. Alternating as the committee's chairman, and senior Democrat when Republicans were in control, Oberstar's ability to reach across the aisle to create bipartisan alliances is legendary. In concert with former Republican Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), Oberstar supervised the writing of surface transportation authorization with minimal partisan bickering.

Also available to succeed LaHood was now retired nine-term Republican Congressman Steve LaTourette of Ohio (recall LaHood is a Republican), who chaired the House Rail Subcommittee, has been a supporter of high-speed rail, Amtrak funding and positive-train control. When he departed Congress, LaTourette's name briefly surfaced as a candidate for the top lobbying job at the Association of American Railroads (since filled). However, his confirmation by the Senate may have been problematic, as LaTourette was a vocal critic of Tea Party Republicans; and, in 2005, he criticized the Bush administration's appointees to the Amtrak board, which fired former Amtrak President David Gunn. LaTourette also questioned whether that Bush-nominated board was legally constituted. Nonetheless, LaTourette's qualifications for the job are plentiful.

Trains will continue to run, transit will continue to operate, highways will continue to be built, and the Air Traffic Control System will continue to function under Secretary Foxx, as they did under Secretary LaHood. A president, as a baseball general manager, fields the team he considers the most effective to carry out his agenda. In the end, the criticisms — as does the "buck" — stop at the president's desk.

Case in point is Bill Clinton. His 1994 budget proposal recommended an Amtrak appropriation three times that recommended by George H.W. Bush. But his 1996 budget proposed a 23% cut in that budget. Flip, flop. Clinton's transportation secretary those years was Federico Pena, a former mayor of Denver, who had been a transportation adviser to the Clinton presidential run and who lopped 11,000 jobs from DOT after being named transportation secretary. Pena was Obama's national campaign co-chair prior to Obama's 2008 election.

And that's the way it is in Washington, D.C. Go figure. It's the nation's capital's most popular pastime.

Frank N. Wilner

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals.