GOP Demands a Stop to Stim Spending. What Will It Mean for Rail Projects?

The top Republican currently on the Appropriations Committee wants to take back stimulus funds promised to states and localities for much-needed infrastructure programs, including more than $6 billion in transportation funding. High-speed rail projects would take an especially big hit under the plan.

California high speed rail could be especially at risk if Republicans rescind stimulus funds. Image: ##http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/gallery_statewide_01.aspx##CA High Speed Rail Authority#
California's high speed rail program could be especially at risk if Congress rescinds stimulus funds. Image: ##http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/gallery_statewide_01.aspx##CA High Speed Rail Authority#

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) has introduced H.R. 6403, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Rescissions Act, a bill to rescind the stimulus dollars that haven’t been obligated yet. Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), set to take the helm of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD, is a proud co-sponsor.

According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, $16 billion of those unobligated funds are for infrastructure, including about $6.3 billion for transportation. In total, 16 percent of stimulus dollars remain unobligated, and 14 percent of transportation funds.

As Ken Orski of Innovation Briefs notes, the $1.2 billion of rail grants to Wisconsin and Ohio could be added to that sum if the governors-elect of those states move forward with their plans to kill rail projects there. Orski adds, “Some of the $24 billion in ARRA transportation dollars that have been obligated but not yet paid out, including some TIGER grants, could also be candidates for rescission.”

Only 67 percent of stimulus funds have been paid out so far – but that’s not by accident. It was supposed to be a three-year plan, and it hasn’t been quite two years since it was enacted. So they’re right on schedule.

No matter: 29 Republicans (so far) have signed on to Lewis’ bill, saying they want unspent stimulus dollars to go back into the Treasury. Where will that money come from? Speculation has centered on high-speed rail projects, already being targeted by Republicans as “wasteful spending.”

The San Jose Mercury News says that rail would be the disproportionate loser in the rescissions game. “About half the remaining stimulus money is set aside for planned high-speed rail projects,” writes Mercury reporter Mike Rosenberg. “The largest is in California, which has spent nearly $200 million of its $2.25 billion award on planning but is saving the rest for construction.” Without the stimulus funds it’s been promised, the whole project could fall apart.

Before we get too Chicken-Little about this possibility, let’s remember a few things about the legislative process. First, this bill is being introduced at the tail end of the session, and during a busy lame duck, meaning it likely won’t come up for a vote. Second, it’s been referred to three committees: Appropriations, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Oversight & Government Reform – and there’s no way those committees will make quick work of this. Third, it only has 29 co-sponsors – out of 435 members of the House, which still, until January 3, has a Democratic majority. Fourth, the Senate is still controlled by Democrats – even after January.

And finally, do you think President Obama will sign this into law and undermine one of his most dramatic achievements? Not likely.

However, infrastructure supporters should take note. If nothing else, the introduction of the bill is a sign of the anti-spending fever that’s taken hold of the Republican party – and spreading to the Democrats. Given that they all pay lip service to the need for more job creation, it’s troubling that they would even think of weakening the stimulus with unemployment still at 9.6 percent.

  • MRN

    I think what the GOP really means is “let’s stop trying to fix the economy while democrats are in the white house!”

  • Mark Walker

    In the post-peak future — when trains, bikes, and feet may be the only things left moving — saving unsustainable areas that turned down rail funding may be deemed “wasteful spending” by taxpayers in sustainable areas.

  • Rob B.

    Meanwhile, 70 tunnel borers are busy building new subway lines in one city in China.

  • James Fujita

    @ Mark Walker: Do you really think the UNITED States of America would survive this post-peak, hyper-localized future scenario long enough for urban taxpayers to get an empty, useless revenge on the red states?

    Post-peak-oil will be a nightmare for all involved, red state or blue state, urban, rural or suburban. It should be avoided at all costs.

  • Brilliant. Trust the GOP to turn a bad recession into a second great depression for political advantage, and cause long-term harm to the country’s infrastructure in the process.

    Scary thing is, it just might work.

  • Mad Park

    The GOP will stop at nothing to achieve their ends – you can go all the way back to RM Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to RW Reagan’s “Trickle UP” successes to the continued increase in the DoD’s budgets under all the GOP presidents. They will stop at nothing. Rich getting richer? All’s well with the world!

  • GetReal

    “…rail would be the disproportionate loser in the rescissions game.”

    Well, why not? Rail, after all, was the disproportionate winner in the pork game!

    Some of these projects would cost a half million dollars per daily passenger and would affect less than one tenth of one percent of personal travel.

    This boondoggle needs to die by stake through the heart.

  • Brandi

    Every time I hear boondoggle it makes me cringe. It is merely a way to cut off debate and sound one’s horn without actually discussing the issues.

  • Some would cost half a million per passenger. Others would cost $10,000. Nowhere has the GOP shown any interest in keeping or promoting $10,000/rider projects; its purpose is not to reform government but to abolish it, and by its own thinktanks’ admission, making government more efficient will make abolishing it less popular.

  • GetReal

    Boondoggle, boondoggle, boondoggle

    1. wasteful pursuit: an activity or project that is unnecessary and wasteful of time or money, especially one undertaken for personal or political gain

    2. politically motivated government project: a government project of little practical value funded to gain political favor

    Right next to the definition is a picture Just like the one above.

    What more needs to be said? High speed rail is the poster child of unnecessary and wasteful.

  • GetReal

    Please send example of a HSR project that would cost just $10,000 per passenger. This fiscal conservative would replicate that model coast to coast, city to city.

    Get Real!

  • Not HSR – local rail. HSR costs much more per rider, but because ticket prices are higher, it remains profitable. The LGV Sud-Est cost about $40,000 per daily rider but paid its construction bonds in full ahead of time and generated a 15% ROI. Talking of per-rider cost for HSR is pointless, because it’s a business investment that should be measured in terms of ROI and operating profits.

  • GetReal

    Make a note, Alon.

    This train will never deliver a return on the investment. NEVER.

    It will always be a drain on the California economy. ALWAYS.

    I give it a 25% chance of ever opening. EVER.

    A wake up call it’s way to Washington and these boondoggle trains are the low hanging fruit.

    Get Real

  • There exists exactly one HSR line in the world that’s not at least operationally profitable, and it’s a glorified commuter line. Even boondoggles like Taiwan HSR and the not-really-HSR Acela make money.

    Just repeating “This train will always be a drain” until you believe it doesn’t make it so.

  • GetReal

    I guess if you ignore the construction cost and disregard huge operating subsidies, then maybe you can consider these albatrosses to be profitable.

    I figure you’re not a CPA are you Alon? You must be a politician.

    Get Real

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