A Democratic president elected after a President Bush led America into a war with Iraq and national recession, a young candidate offering change, promising in particular to change our transportation policy to something more transit friendly, including an explicit promise to build a high speed rail network.
As Yonah at The Transport Politic points out in a must-read post, that wasn't just Barack Obama in 2008 - it was also Bill Clinton in 1992. Unfortunately for America, Clinton's promises never quite came to fruition, pushing back real action on HSR for nearly 20 years:
Before he was elected, Mr. Clinton had laid out a major economic plan, one of whose major elements was the high-speed rail system. Unlike Mr. Obama in his recent statement, Mr. Clinton was willing to put “rail systems” (presumably transit) and “high-speed rail” in the same sentence as “roads and bridges.” Mr. Clinton clearly didn’t find the issue to be so controversial that he wasn’t willing to talk about it. And Mr. Clinton was running on the right of the Democratic Party.
Yonah quotes from Bill Clinton's statement in the second debate from October 1992:
“My plan would dedicate $20 billion a year in each of the next four years for investment and new transportation, communications, environmental clean-up, and new technologies for the 21st century and we would target it especially in areas that have been either depressed or which have lost a lot of defense-related jobs. There are 200,000 people in California, for example, who’ve lost their defense-related jobs. They ought to be engaged in making high-speed rail; they ought to be engaged in breaking ground in other technologies, doing waste recycling, clean water technology, and things of that kind.“
For those of us who may have forgotten (or for those of you who weren't alive then), California was facing a severe economic recession with the end of the Cold War and the scaling back of the defense industry that, in Southern California especially, fueled the 1980s boom. Clinton explicitly said that a California HSR project would be a good way to provide jobs for a state that desperately needed them.
So what happened to Clinton the HSR builder? According to Yonah, despite enthusiasm from environmentalists and rail advocates - including then-Amtrak president W. Graham Claytor - Clinton's initial post-election plans did not come through on HSR and a 1993 HSR bill died in the House:
And yet we all know what comes next. Mr. Clinton entered office and the 1993 High-Speed Rail Development Act, considered in the House, did not move. Though the Federal Railroad Administration has designated corridors for high-speed rail, little has come of the effort. Though Mr. Clinton’s campaign persona seemed like it would produce a very pro-rail president, the result was far less than that. Mr. Clinton did little to promote the issue. He never designated more than a few million dollars to any corridor. The Northeast Corridor’s improvement was half-hearted and resulted in not-so-fast “high-speed” rail.
We can provide more detail. Early 1993 saw a pitched battle between the new administration and moderate and conservative Democrats in the Congress who did not agree with Clinton's new priorities, such as Clinton's plans for a BTU tax - an early '90s version of a carbon tax - and for an increased gas tax to pay for these projects. Conservative Dems in particular objected to new federal spending, forcing the Clinton Administration to climb down from its more ambitious goals in order to save the stimulus - which was already facing a filibuster from Senate Republicans.
Clinton never did get another opportunity to follow up on his HSR promises. After Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 election, Clinton had to acquiesce to many Republican budget cutting demands, especially on Amtrak. Clinton was able to get the Acela built, but because of Republican penny pinching they had to use the existing tracks and corridor, leaving the Acela short of being a true high speed rail system (in spite of that it is still a very successful service). The FRA did produce the HSR corridor plan but again with Republicans controlling the Congressional purse strings this never got beyond the conceptual stage. Meanwhile George W. Bush was killing the Texas HSR project and his brother was planning to do the same in Florida.
The lesson here is that political opportunities for high speed rail do not come along very often. 2008 was a wonderful year for us both in California and in Washington DC. Obama and Biden are both talking a good game but we have yet to see a detailed plan. Kerry's HSR bill is also a good start, but it must not die as did its 1993 predecessor.
It is entirely possible given the ugly economic situation and the precariousness of the Democratic majority in Congress that 2010 could see Republican victories as in 1994. Clinton rode a booming economy to victory in 1996; Obama will not likely have such beneficial circumstances in 2012. That means 2009 is the time to get some real federal support for HSR. As Yonah concludes:
The lesson we should take from the Clinton campaign is to take our own interpretations of Mr. Obama’s statements with a grain of salt. Though it’s nice to imagine the candidate is going to go all-out for high-speed rail, his positions so far have been less forthright than those of Mr. Clinton. Clearly, the President-elect is going to have to do a lot to convince us of his true positions - and that means prioritizing, in the budget.
We shall see in the next few months whether Mr. Obama truly cares about high-speed rail. But let’s not forget to keep up our own activism, rather than let our assumptions about his get in the way.
Absolutely right. We must hold Obama's feet to the fire, and be prepared to do battle with his administration and the Congress if necessary to ensure that HSR funding becomes reality in 2009. We wasted a perfect opportunity in 1993 - we cannot do that in 2009.
To help ensure that Washington DC produces real action and real funding for passenger rail, including HSR, Transportation For America is conducting a write-your-Congressman campaign. Click the link, fill it out, it only takes a few minutes.
We will be launching an HSR-specific version in January here at the blog. The first weeks and months of 2009 will be crucial to the success of California High Speed Rail - and HSR around the country.