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Part 1 : Rail industry stakeholders weigh in on 2012 election issues
Part 2 : Transportation infrastructure investment in an era of partisanship
Part 3 : Is federal funding for Amtrak at stake?
Part 4 : To what extent is rail transportation investment at risk?
Part 5 : Freight-rail regulation: Will re-reg resurface?
Part 6 : Truck size and weight will continue to be an issue for railroads
Part 7 Online Only: Election 2012: Rail experts sound off on funding, retirement, rules, policies and taxes
Even when candidates name check or seem to be paying attention to transportation infrastructure investment, it's often unclear where they actually stand on specific issues. On Aug. 20, the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL), which represents shippers, sent letters to the Obama and Romney campaigns seeking their views on transportation infrastructure, especially as it pertains to freight transportation.
"We asked a very direct question as to how each of the candidates looks at transportation infrastructure, including the critical issue of how do we fund it," NITL President and CEO Bruce Carlton says. "That's probably the biggest element of the debate."
As of late September, NITL hadn't received a response from either campaign. Not that NITL and other groups aren't using context clues to piece together the parties' basic views on transportation matters.
"The Republican platform is pretty clearly saying, 'We want to keep giving money to highways and cut funding for other modes, and that's how we're going to reduce spending in this area,'" says Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit organization that supports transportation-related professional development programs, policy forums and publications. "They also are clearly painting a picture where there would be a clear emphasis on the private sector in transportation, both in the rail industry and transit industry. That's what I would call the downside of their plan."
On the upside, the Republican plan is practical, Schank says. "In an environment where money is hard to come by, raising revenue for transportation is challenging and what they're proposing is fiscally responsible, even if ideologically driven," he adds.
Meanwhile, Democrats have said they recognize the importance of infrastructure investment and tend to be more inclusive, modally speaking. Moreover, they seem to view infrastructure investment as "an essential component to regaining economic vitality" — or, at least, the words suggest that they have, Schank says.
Adds Carlton: "I think we've seen [President Obama] use transportation as a tool. Sometimes, he and the party have succeeded; sometimes, they haven't. But the rhetoric has been: 'If we repair roads and build new bridges and develop our ports, this is a job creator.' Infrastructure has sort of been one of the core elements of their recovery program."
On the downside: The Democratic platform essentially reiterates what they've said the past few years, and "none of those proposals have gone anywhere, so they don't indicate how things would change," Schank says.
"It seems aspirational more than practical," he adds.
It's a philosophical and intensely partisan divide that's helped put a range of infrastructure issues in limbo, making it that much harder to divine what truly may be at stake this election cycle — other than the consequences of inaction due to the inability of lawmakers to work together.
"Historically speaking, transit infrastructure funding is one of the least partisan areas, but certainly over the last few years for whatever reason — or maybe for many reasons — it developed a more partisan edge," NRC President Chuck Baker says. "And it's become most obvious on core issues like how much we want to invest in rail that moves people."