New D.C. power structure on display at Hartford rail forum

The new realities of Washington politics came to Hartford today as rail advocates and congressional Democrats publicly courted a Republican critic of Amtrak and President Obama’s vision of a national rail network.

The GOP takeover of the House means that a key railroad subcommittee now is in the hands of U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who believes that Amtrak should shed unprofitable routes and that Obama must focus his mass-transit goals.

Rail roundtable

U.S. Rep. John Larson introduces U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

The good news for Connecticut is that Shuster sees the Northeast Corridor stretching from Washington through New England as exactly where investing federal infrastructure dollars on rail makes sense.

“It’s essential we have a success story,” said Shuster, the featured guest at a high-speed rail forum organized by U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District.

A measure of Shuster’s importance to the success of high-speed rail in New England was evident in the Who’s Who of Connecticut Democrats surrounding the Republican: Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and four of the five House members, Larson, Joe Courtney, Rosa DeLauro and Chris Murphy.

U.S. Rep. John Olver, a Democrat who represents western Massachusetts, wondered aloud if Connecticut’s government had “come to a halt” in honor of Shuster’s visit. But, of course, he also found it important to come south to spend time with the new subcommittee chairman.

Such public issues “roundtables” have several agendas. For Larson, it was an opportunity to demonstrate that, even in the minority, he can bring key players to Connecticut to meet with local business leaders and transportation advocates.

The irony in the Republican takeover is that some of the Democratic state delegation’s agenda may get a better hearing. Shuster and U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, have complained that Obama ignored the Northeast to fund rail projects elsewhere that might never be financially sustainable.

Bill Shuster

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

Shuster said that he hopes that the House will pass a comprehensive transportation authorization bill later this year, which would place the rail initiative on more solid footing. He called it a personal goal.

“If this guy can move that bill, I mean, that’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” Courtney said. “Frankly, the administration was not really stepping up. They were ones who were holding things back.”

The rail corridor project has relied on spurts of funding.

“The transportation authorization bill to me is the real significant milestone,” Courtney said. “If we just keeping limping along with extensions of the last plan, then in my opinion this is going to continue to live in dribs and drabs.”

The Northeast Corridor is perfect for rail, and Hartford was a logical place for him to visit, Shuster said.

Midway between New York and Boston, Hartford is at the heart of one of the nation’s densest population corridors; and population density makes rail economically viable, Shuster said.

DeLauro seemed to cringe when Shuster criticized Obama’s goal of establishing passenger rail service that can reach 80 percent of the nation’s population, but overall his message was well-received by his Democratic audience.

Shuster said his visit was more than an opportunity for congressional colleagues to get media attention.

“It’s hearing local leaders and their commitment about what they are willing to do. We’ve got to go forward a different way. You can’t just say, federal government come in and fund it,” Shuster said. “You’ve got to work with the states. You’ve got to bring the private sector in. The local people have got have skin in the game.”

Oz Griebel, the president of the MetroHartford Alliance, the region’s major business group and a backer of high-speed rail connecting Hartford to New York, said his group is willing to pay for transportation improvements through electronic tolls or higher gas taxes.

Malloy was not ready to sign off on a new revenue stream for transportation, saying his focus now is resolving the state’s structural deficit before delivering his budget address on Feb. 16. Transportation funding, he said, is a topic for the spring.