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USHSR summit encourages lobbying efforts


During the third and final day of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association’s (USHSR) summit held this week in Washington, D.C., conference organizers zeroed in on a topic that had been mentioned throughout the week: lobbying.

And there will need to be a lot of it if HSR supporters hope to see a surface transportation bill that includes substantial funding for building a national high-speed network.

“We got all excited about the $53 billion, but the Republican budget caucus met yesterday and zeroed out the $1 billion for high-speed rail [included in the FY2011 budget],” USHSR Vice President, Government Affairs Thomas Hart told attendees yesterday morning. “It’s not going to be easy to get money in this environment.”

That’s why USHSR officials say they’re going to be expanding the organization’s tasks beyond hosting conferences and events to become more of a lobbying group that “can actually get things done on Capitol Hill,” says Hart.

They’ve already started. This week, USHSR began circulating legislation around Capitol Hill that would encourage private investment in HSR. The Private Investment in High Speed Rail Act of 2011 would provide federal incentives for private-sector investment, as well as targeted expenditures of public funds to advance HSR development in the United States. For more on the legislation, click here.

But it’s going to take a lot more than a legislative proposal to gain support for HSR. The association also is working to devleop an HSR Political Action Committee (PAC) to put “muscle and energy and resources” behind USHSR, says Hart.

“It’s an important credibility move for our association,” he told conference attendees, encouraging them to help support an HSR PAC. “If we don’t have it, we’re a small child in a big man’s game, and I don’t like to play that way.”

Jon Plebani, Director of Federal Govenrment Relations for law and government affairs firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney P.C. also discussed the importance of forming a PAC, which raises money to help elect politicians that support a PAC’s views.  

“If you try to do political business without a PAC, your reach will be narrow and limited in its scope,” Plebani said. “Whether the public likes it or not, members of Congress spend an inordinate amount of their time raising money. You can either be in that game or outside of it.”

USHSR hopes to form a PAC “very quickly,” says Hart. In the meantime, though, the association will continue promoting it legislation on Capitol Hill.

During the final portion of the summit, a group of more than a dozen attendees headed over to Capitol Hill to meet with staffers from three different senators. Those who tagged along were instructed to clearly promote HSR, but also listen to what staffers had to say on the topic.

Association  leaders followed through on those tips during a visit with a staffer from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) office. Hutchison serves as the ranking Republican member of the Senate Commerce Committee. Members outlined HSR’s economic benefits, discussed the importance of implementing HSR in the country’s “megaregions” and asked the staffer how they could get him and the senator to support HSR.

The staffer mentioned concerns about the way the Obama Adminstiration has handled the high-speed and intercity passenger-rail program to date, and asked if USHSR would support legislation requring private capital to help fund high-speed projects. Hart promptly handed the staffer USHSR’s proposed legislation.

Hutchison’s staff member also made it clear that HSR supporters are going to have their work cut out for them in their efforts to obtain support for substantial funding in the next surface transportation bill.

“The Adminsitration’s proposal had a lot of people around here scratching their heads — where is that money going to come from?” the staffer said. “I think you’ll see that the federal government is not going to cover all of this.”

Angela Cotey

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/11/2011