Trains and Transportation Infrastructure: High-Profile and Highly Contentious

April 21, 2011 | By Liza Casabona | Post a Comment

High-speed rail and transportation investments seemed to be on the fast track earlier this year with high-profile promises from the Obama administration, but in recent weeks, heated debates and increased scrutiny over federal spending have threatened to derail the issue.

Two recent reports from the Government Accounting Office critiqued how the federal government currently distributes grants for transportation and rail projects.

In one report, the GAO said that the Department of Transportation’s discretionary grants known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery would benefit from an increased focus on performance results and better documentation of how decisions about awards are made.

A second GAO report similarly recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration better document why and how award decisions related to intercity passenger rail grants are made in order to increase accountability

John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, used the GAO’s transportation reports to level criticism at the Obama administration for inadequate justification of grants for high-speed rail, passenger rail and TIGER transportation projects.

The governor of Mica’s home state was one of several Republican governors who rejected federal funds for high-speed rail projects and returned the money to the Department of Transportation.

Following a deal reached by Congressional leaders and President Obama over spending priorities for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, transportation dollars will be even more limited. The deal cut $2.5 billion in funding for high-speed rail this year and rescinded an additional $400 million in funding approved by Congress last year.

The Rockefeller Foundation has identified broad support among most Americans for transportation and infrastructure investment. The foundation’s Infrastructure Survey found that two out of three U.S. voters think that investing in transportation infrastructure is “highly important,” and 71 percent of voters think that Washington should find a compromise on legislation affecting roads, bridges and transit systems.

Transportation advocates could face an uphill climb to carve out the significant investment necessary to get high-speed rail and other infrastructure improvements back on track.

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