Obama Wants Extension of Current Transportation Bill, Regulatory Changes for Projects
Two significant announcements from the White House today could have an impact on the California high speed rail project. The first is President Barack Obama’s call for a “clean” extension of the expired transportation bill:
As part of an effort to spur additional job creation, the Obama administration will push Congress to keep surface transportation spending at current levels rather than subject it to cuts, according to sources familiar with the matter.
House Republicans have demanded big cuts to transportation spending, which drew the unusual response of having the AFL-CIO join the US Chamber of Commerce to call for increasing transportation spending, rather than cutting it. House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, said he would agree to one more extension, but it’s not clear how long that would last. With the GOP trailing in polls for the next House election, Mica likely realizes he has one shot to gut federal transportation spending, and intends to use it in 2012.
Of course, this all could have been avoided had Democrats actually done their jobs and gotten a new transportation bill done when they had majorities in both houses of Congress in 2009 and 2010. The White House preferred to do health care first, which took over a year to finalize and meant that other important legislation did not get completed. The Democratic House proposal for a new transportation bill included long-term funding for high speed rail, but this never made it to the Senate. Such funding, which is essential to building high speed rail in California, now has to wait until 2013.
Of course, California does have enough HSR money to start construction in the Central Valley. But the process of getting required environmental approvals will mean that contracts will be signed close to the stimulus deadline of September 2012 – that’s just one year away. However, another announcement made by President Obama today could mean a shorter EIR/EIS process:
Finally, in keeping with a recommendation from my Jobs Council, today I’m directing certain federal agencies to identify high-priority infrastructure projects that can put people back to work. And these projects — these are projects that are already funded, and with some focused attention, we could expedite the permitting decisions and reviews necessary to get construction underway more quickly while still protecting safety, public health, and the environment.
It’s unclear whether California high speed rail would be one of these high-priority infrastructure projects. But it would fit the profile of the type of work that the Obama Administration appears to be targeting. Obviously any expedition of the HSR permitting process would be deeply controversial in the Central Valley, where project critics and NIMBYs have been fighting to move the HSR route to the Highway 99 corridor between Fresno and Bakersfield. So it’s not at all clear whether California HSR will be included among the expedited permitting process the president envisions.
Still, the announcement about the transportation bill is itself significant. If we can survive the next 18 months without Obama caving to Republicans and accepting big cuts to federal transportation spending, we might just have a shot at getting a long-term HSR funding source in 2013. Of course, that requires Obama to get re-elected. And that’s looking more and more uncertain with each passing day. 2012 is going to be a white knuckle ride.