What! No High Speed Rail Funds?

H

oly conservative! Richmond’s ruling elite is having a train wreck with the McDonnell Administration.

After several years of pushing higher speed rail, Gov. Robert McDonnell’s secretary of transportation announced that the state would not be applying for some of the $2.4 billion made available for higher speed rail after Florida nixed such a project that would serve Tampa and Orlando.

Sean Connaughton says that the state is simply being “realistic” and that it does not have the money for its 20 percent share for the project that would boost higher speed rail from Richmond to Washington.

That flies in the face of Richmond’s business class, which is solidly behind boosting train speeds between the two cities to about 90 miles an hour. Top speeds, rarely reached by passenger trains on the route, are 79 miles per hour. True “high speed” rail kicks in at 110 m.p.h.

The plan is backed by none other that the conservative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a congressman from Henrico County, along with such groups as the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce and various commercial barons, including James Ukrops, the former head of the now defunct Ukrops grocery stores.

They all like the idea of using the fancy, 1901 Renaissance-style Main Street Station to be whisked quickly and effortlessly to Union Station for their meetings in D.C., thus avoiding the abomination of Interstate 95.

One problem is that Main Street Station was obsolete from the day it opened more than a century ago. A bigger and political one soon arose. Higher speed rail is Barack Obama’s baby. Strict. dogmatic conservatives see federal and state spending as unneeded now that they all are carrying the banner of deficit and debt cutbacks.

Not to be outdone, Richmond’s equally conservative ruling elite struck back. On March 30, they trotted out William S. Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, who weighed in with the idea that it’s OK to be right wing and go for public subsidies for higher sped rail.

The fight over the dogma soul is delicious to the observer and conjures up the Great Schism of 1054 or maybe even Martin Luther hammering his edicts on the church door some time later.

The Big Example, of course, is Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida who said that funding higher speed rail between Orlando and Tampa made no sense because the demand wasn’t really there and billions for trains would only cut the car travel time by a few minutes. He, naturally, doesn’t have to deal with the glue of I-95 and the Beltway around D.C., but some of the points are the same.

Not all states see things the same way. Twenty-four of them are vying for the extra funding including the District of Columbia.

Thelma Drake, the former Congresswoman who is now the state director of rail and public transportation under Connaughton, said Virginia wasn’t going for the federal bucks because the state could not guarantee a 2017 deadline for completing work and didn’t have the 20 percent match. If the state missed the deadline, which could be hampered by required environmental impact statements, Virginia might have to give the money back.

In a sense, it’s good that some on McDonnell’s administration have the chops to tell it like it is. What’s going to be interesting is how the Richmond Elite respond.

Peter Galuszka

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