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An Issue Democrats Should Be Talking About

My apologies for the lack of posts today – spent the day at a terrific policy seminar far from the madding crowd (did Obama say something about Romney and bin Laden?) Posting may also be light in the next few days as I dig into reporting a feature piece. But seeing that as I am now riding good old Amtrak, I figured that would be a good occasion to …announce a run for president! No, just kidding, I will leave that for this guy (and in fact, this actual possible candidate is also on this train.) Rather, I am inspired by the relative celerity of the Acela to raise a point I’ve been mulling over the past week or so: why aren’t more Democratic candidates making an issue of transportation and infrastructure?

Think about it: Republican elected officials around the country have been making a sport of canceling or imperiling transportation projects, and most specifically mass transit ones, that could do a great deal of good for their constituents. First it was the governors of Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejecting federal funding for passenger rail projects in their states (for the record, the argument for the Ohio and Wisconsin projects was, as far as I can tell, stronger than for the Tampa-Orlando high speed line that Gov. Rick Scott rejected. But I know plenty of Floridians would disagree.) Then it was New Jersey’s Chris Christie pulling the plug on the new rail tunnel under the Hudson to relieve severe overcrowding on the existing ones – a move that, it has recently emerged, was premised on distorted data. More recently, there is Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, who has shown a distinct lack of interest in providing the money needed to see home the Washington Metro line to Dulles Airport, a 23-mile extension that is also being threatened by the new, all-Republican board of Loudoun County, Virginia, where the line is supposed to terminate. The board is upset not only about Loudoun’s share of the costs but about union-friendly terms in the bidding process. At the very least, the completion of the $5.6 billion project, the first half of which is to be done next year, will be seriously delayed as a result.

Finally, there's Mitt Romney, who was a major smart-growth advocate in Massachusetts, but is now saying, as part of his presidential stump speech, that he is going to eliminate federal funding for Amtrak.

The three governors who rejected the rail funding for their states in 2011 were making plain during their runs for office that they were none too keen on the projects. But as far as I can recall, McDonnell was not making the possible demise of Dulles rail part of his package when he ran in 2009, nor was Christie making it clear he would axe the tunnel. Nor can I recall their Democratic opponents, Jon Corzine and Creigh Deeds, warning New Jersey and Northern Virginia voters that electing a tax-slashing Republican was going to threaten the completion of long-in-the-works projects that could be transformative for their region. The question, is why haven’t Democrats been making an issue out of these things? Granted, mass transit is way down on the list of most voters’ priorities – way down there around climate change. And many transit and smart-growth advocates are reluctant to make these sorts of projects into a political issue – they still pine for the day when intelligent planning and solid infrastructure were seen as nonpartisan, Eisenhowerian things that sensible people could agree on. But those days are past. The more Republicans are making a political issue of these projects, the more people who believe in them will need to do the same – to reach out to the voters who do care about these investments and make clear to them that if they elect the other guy, odds are the projects won’t happen.

And interestingly enough, at least one candidate now seems to be taking this tack: Tim Kaine, the former Virginia governor and DNC chairman, is talking up the survival of Dulles Rail in his Senate run against George Allen. At a recent gathering of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, he praised Allen for helping secure funding for the project during his previous stint in the Senate, before rail became anathema, while decrying the “anti-investment, anti-infrastructure mentality that has crept into politics.”

Now, if he or anyone else could just do something about the dead patches on the Amtrak’s wireless connection. I’m with ya on that one, Tom. Though, to be fair, I’m in a good enough patch right now that I apparently can put up this post. So credit where it’s due.