LaHood: Obama’s rail initiative could benefit New Haven-Springfield line

WASHINGTON–Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that the Obama Administration’s push for a national high-speed rail network could directly benefit a proposed $1 billion line from New Haven to Springfield.

In a briefing with regional reporters, LaHood also reiterated the president’s commitment to pushing for a transportation “infrastructure bank,” an idea long championed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and ex-Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

But these twin initiatives come as Republicans in the House are moving ahead with deep cuts in transportation spending and when the appetite for new programs is weak at best. Even as LaHood spoke, House GOP leaders began circulating a proposal that would slice $1 billion from high-speed rail for this year and $224 million from Amtrak funding.

The countervailing moves have Connecticut officials uncertain about what to expect from Washington.

“The money we get from the federal government is really our lifeline,” said Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey Parker.

He said the state has drawn up its five-year capital plan based on an assumption of level funding from Washington. “If those dollars go down, projects are going to have to fall off the table,” he said.

House Republicans have called for trimming 17 percent, or about $11.6 billion, from the current fiscal year’s appropriations bill that funds transportation and housing programs. The details of how deep those cuts will go into specific programs are just now emerging.

Whatever the specifics, the House GOP plan will would almost certainly “compound Connecticut’s problems” in closing a projected $3.67 billion budget deficit, said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “It’s more misery for the state.”

The House is likely to take up its spending proposal, which will fund government operations from March 4 through the end of this fiscal year, next week. The Senate’s timeline is uncertain. But with Democrats in control of that chamber, the Senate spending bill could be slightly more generous.

LaHood acknowledged the difficult fiscal climate but said the White House would push aggressively for increased spending on transportation projects, even as it proposed cuts in other arenas.

“We’re going to work with Congress to find the revenue,” LaHood said.

LaHood said that Connecticut’s proposed rail line–planned as part of a network that would link Boston, Montreal, Manhattan, Albany and Washington–would be among those eligible for funding under the president’s new initiative.

Vice President Joe Biden outlined the proposal Tuesday, saying the White House’s 2012 budget proposal will request $8 billion for high-speed rail infrastructure spending. The $8 billion will be the first installment of a six-year $53 billion plan to connect 80 percent of Americans via high-speed rail in the coming decades.

LaHood said the New England states have been “leaders” in this mode and that he’d already spoken to Gov. Dannel Malloy about Connecticut’s interest in snagging federal money for high-speed rail.

LaHood and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Jason Furman, who also participated in Wednesday’s briefing, said the forthcoming budget would also provide more detail about the infrastructure bank proposal.

Congress would have to create such an entity. Proponents, including DeLauro, said the bank would seek to leverage federal funding to attract additional private sector investment for key infrastructure projects. The bank would make loans and grants for top regional or national transportation priorities, as well as for other infrastructure needs, such as water, energy, and broadband projects.

DeLauro and Dodd, who retired earlier this year, have long pushed this idea. But it’s never gained much traction in Congress. And some have suggested that with Dodd now gone, it could be an even tougher sell in the Senate, where the idea has gotten a lukewarm reception in previous years.

But DeLauro said the idea is more salient now than ever, because it could help stretch federal dollars at a time when the federal budget is tight.

“In order to look toward long-term economic growth… an infrastructure bank is critical,” DeLauro said. “In an age where we need to rebuild, you are leveraging public and private dollars.”

DeLauro recently reintroduced her bill to create a “National Infrastructure Development Bank.” She acknowledged she doesn’t have any GOP co-sponsors yet, but said she planned to sit down soon with the top two Republicans on the House transportation panel.

“I think it is a new climate and… this is an idea whose time has come,” she said.

Courtney noted that part of the reason there’s been a years-long deadlock over transportation funding in Washington is because of a shortfall in the highway trust fund. If the infrastructure bank could help generate new revenue to close the gap between the gas tax revenue and transportation needs, he said, “it could be well positioned to get strong support” across the political spectrum.