Originally Posted by ardecila
Am I seriously the only liberal who thinks it's a bad thing when the government throws billions of dollars behind some boondoggle?
No. Before I registered here, I was fairly anti-HSR (though still very strongly pro-transit). I felt it was a project with high costs, marginal benefits and geared more towards ribbon-cuttings and greenwashing than anything else. It wasn’t until I really read up on the Florida project, which garnered the enthusiasm of the likes of SNCF and one of the JR divisions and was structured so as to minimize risk to the public. I’m guessing I’m probably more liberal than you, too (I’d also like to note that intercity rail’s pretty much a blip on most liberals’—or people’s—minds, which is something most railfans tend to forget).
But I think you’re fairly wrong about most conservatives and rail, (at least outside of areas where conservatives take trains,like Chicago, and the occasional exception). As Ch.G, Ch.G notes, it’s mostly about hostility towards any and all spending but it’s combined with a couple of other thing. One is the fact that, historically, Americans roads have been funded by the government while American rail has privately funded, so there’s already longstanding precedent for not providing government funds for rail.
The other big factor is culture war played out through mode choice, which has grown out of debates over of transit funding and construction. For instance, during the height of the Tea Party, it wasn’t hard to find examples in newspaper comments that referred to intercity rail as light rail and complained about undesirables using trains to come to their communities. Furthermore, a number of the commonly-touted benefits of intercity rail, particularly environmental ones (which I’d say personally say often verge close to greenwashing) and congestion reduction by “getting people out of their cars” played into this; these aspects are culturally unpalatable to many conservatives. Unless there is a direct, easily imaginable benefit, like commuter rail in suburban Chicago or light rail in suburban Denver, it is hard to get your median, more-likely-to-live-in-the-exurbs conservative voter to support rail, intracity or intercity.
The fact that rail is (unless you live in North Dakota, Montana or West Virginia) primarily an city-city mode of transport. There is some support for rail from conservative elites—the LaCrosse paper endorsed Walker with the reservation that he should support the Milwaukee-Madison line, and Walker subsequently applied to fund Hiawatha improvements with rail money—and both of those cases came from the fact that LaCrosse and Milwaukee already have intercity rail service, and the Milwaukee service is fairly successful. Still, when it came time to do something as simple as putting the Talgos on the tracks, the Republican-controlled legislature wasn’t willing to pay for it. The Republican Party remains strongest in the outer suburbs and rural areas and gets its money from people who generally don’t have to worry about congestion. A few business travelers in Milwaukee won’t overcome that big structural issue.
Better messaging might help on the margins or with CEOs-for-cities types, but in general I think the idea that all we need is clearer arguments and hokey metaphors is kind of insulting. What it all comes down to is that many Republicans (and Democrats) oppose rail out of their own self-interest—they don’t want to pay for something they imagine they’ll never use
(and in the minds of older voters who remember the shift from trains to planes and automobiles, an outdated
thing they’ll never use, which, given US regulations and track conditions, is more accurate than a lot of the more zealous intercity rail advocates are willing to admit). It’s the same issue with things like science funding, medicaid, and even non-fiscal matters like net neutrality—if voters don’t feel like they need them, their representatives won’t vote for them.