While Tuesday’s state and national election results may bode ill for some 21st century initiatives such as fast intercity passenger rail, new conservative leaders probably won’t abandon transportation investments entirely. In fact, the chance to spur job growth in private-sector construction of public infrastructure may be their clearest path to fulfilling campaign promises of economic resurgence.
The presumptive new chairman of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Mica of Florida, was a cosponsor with ousted Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar of a $500 billion, six-year roads and transit reauthorization that went nowhere in the current Congress. It would have required restoring the buying power of federal fuel taxes that have been gutted by inflation since 1993, something even the Obama administration opposed.
Instead, Congress and the president tapped tens of billions of non-user general funds to keep up with long-term federal commitments to infrastructure projects across the nation. If the new leaders are to honor their pledges to attack the deficit, they will have to stop the shell game and reestablish the user-pays principle for transportation.
Mica, by the way, is a backer of high-speed rail. But he contends that it makes sense only in extremely dense corridors such as the Northeast, and he might even pull the plug on funding for a bullet train in his home state. That, plus the election of a conservative Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate who wants to stop work on a fast train between Milwaukee and Madison, cast serious doubt on Minnesota’s hopes to link into a modern Midwest passenger rail system anytime soon.
While all sorts of public transportation remain whipping boys for many conservatives, they would ignore at their peril one countervailing trend to their sweeping triumphs on Tuesday. In more than three-quarters of state and local ballot measures across the county, voters approved bonding and new taxes totaling nearly $500 million for transit, “complete streets” and other transportation projects, many with 70 percent majorities.
These voters know there’s no free way to build and maintain the public infrastructure that spurs prosperity. Let’s hope our new conservative leaders don’t ignore their wisdom.