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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Amtrak plan and Charlestown

Assessing the odds
By Will Collette

With Donald Trump taking power on January 20, who can really predict what will happen to Amtrak’s misguided plan to cut a swath through some of our area’s most important protected natural resource areas?

The fact that Trump will be our next President, despite losing the popular vote by nearing 3 million, is the ultimate proof that predictions are dangerous in these crazy times.

So while Charlestown and other communities in the path of Amtrak’s planned track relocation mobilize to fight the proposal, here are some factors to consider.

First, funding for the project has not been secured.

Moving the line between New Haven and Kingston is part of a Federal Railroad Administration recommendation  to speed up service along the Northeast Corridor. Rather than dip south to run along the Connecticut coast, the idea is to create more of a straight line between New Haven and Kingston.

Pulling off this small piece – the stretch that would slice through Charlestown – of the overall mega-project will take billions of dollars that simply are not there now. In fact, none of the recommendations in this mega-project are funded yet.

Second, this project is not what the Trump “infrastructure plan” calls for.

Image result for Trump & infrastructure
Yes, Donald Trump claims he will deliver on a campaign promise to create a trillion-dollar infrastructure improvement initiative.

However, Trump said a lot of things during the campaign that aren’t going to happen. 

Some because he never really meant to do them, others because of legal or budgetary restraints. Still others will be so changed by Congress and his own team as to be unrecognizable.

The main feature of the Trump plan as revealed to date calls for a massive tax credit program to private companies to build what are expected to be privately-owned enterprises. 

So if Amtrak were to be sold off to, for example, Exxon-Mobil or Goldman Sachs then sure, they might get to tap those tax credits.

Or if the Trump kids bought Amtrak, no doubt at a huge discount, you can bet those tax credits would flow like manna from heaven. I wish I was joking, but I’m not.

Completely privatizing Amtrak is more likely to happen than this actual project. The conservative Republicans controlling Congress never liked the idea of the federal government owning and running the railroads.

But Amtrak as it is currently structured is unlikely to win the funding it needs for basic operations, never mind a massive modernization program either from the Trump Administration or the Republican-controlled Congress.

Third, Trump’s infrastructure plan may simply disappear

Image result for Trump & "i never said that"We’ve seen this before: Trump makes a grandiose claim or promise. It doesn’t happen. Trump pretends he never made the statement or promise.

Lots of Republican conservatives hate the idea of this trillion-dollar plan, saying it reminds them too much of Obama’s anti-Recession stimulus plan. Even though Obama’s plan actually worked,  Republicans still hated it because, well, Obama. 

Trump’s pick for Transportation Secretary (and Amtrak’s new boss) is Elaine Chao. Big infrastructure projects are not on her priority list. Indeed, her stated priorities are "expedite the process of making repairs" and "decreasing the regulatory burdens."

Her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, stated he hopes to "avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus."

Fourth, neither Trump nor Congress want to do the Northeast any favors.

Because improving the Northeast Rail Corridor will be seen as a boon to the Northeast, I think that pretty much dooms it to a quick and early miscarriage. 

Non-Red States like ours will be lucky to see any disaster funding for blizzard or hurricane relief, never mind a major jobs project like this that, overall, is a positive thing.

And yes, let’s be clear: rail service along the Northeast Corridor is a very good thing and really does need to be improved.

It’s not a contradiction to support modernized rail service in the Northeast Corridor while simultaneously opposing the particular path proposed for the tracks in our area.

Wild cards

To me, the most interesting thing about Amtrak’s plan is how it’s created such a broad-base of opposition in our area. This is one of those times where even Charlestown’s many political factions seem to have found a common cause. That by itself is a good thing.

Bearing in mind that November 8 taught us a sobering lesson about making predictions, there are other factors that may affect the outcome of this issue.

Image result for Trump & payback
For example, there’s the spite factor. Trump is famous for pay-back. I can easily see him think he could pay us back for supporting Hillary by destroying pristine open space and critical habitat in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Fortunately, Trump has no mind for or interest in the details. 

Unfortunately, he has people who do. I could picture one of them pitching this to the Donald as a way to make a show about infrastructure by doing one small, particularly odious, part of the FRA/Amtrak plan to screw us for not supporting him.

While Trump and the people he has picked for his Administration are openlyhostile to most environmental concerns – e.g. putting critical natural areas in danger – they are most hostile to anything related to climate change.

Enhanced public transportation is a key part in the climate change fight, so I could see them saying, “screw the environmentalists and their busses and trains.” This could be a situation where preserving wetlands and open space offset climate change in Trump’s policy math.

In addition to looking at the Electoral map, the Trumpniks and Congress may also look at who is supporting the local portion – the bad part – of the overall Northeast Corridor proposal and who is opposing.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) is currently supporting the plan (and of course needs to be targeted) while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is adamantly against. Both are senior Democrats, well-respected in the Democratic Party and the Senate in general.

However, neither holds any political capital with the incoming Trump people. I doubt that either of them can affect what the Republican majority in the House and Senate do. The Trump people would surely like to screw both Reed and Blumenthal, but in this instance, their interests in this portion of the Amtrak plan offset.

So at this stage, if I was to make a prediction – and I am not – I think Burlingame, the Frances Carter Preserve, Great Swamp, etc. will not be destroyed for the sake of faster Acela travel.

Amtrak’s only win-win is to come up with a better route, if there is one that will actually straighten out the tracks enough to permit real high-speed travel.

But even with a better route, there’s still the big problem of more federal funding for a quasi-public transportation system that helps fight climate change and boosts the Northeast’s economy.
And there’s the factor of time. It took years to plan and execute the replacement of the rail bridge in New London. The Northeast Rail project is, as the Donald would call it “YUGE.” Presuming it isn’t killed outright, it will take decades.

Image result for burrillville civil disobedienceRegardless of the odds, we’d be wise to consider battle plans to fight this proposal should it seem like it might go forward.

It’s not too early to wonder out loud how hard we are willing to fight this thing. Will we use Standing Rock or the Burrillville gas plant fight as models, or simply rely on hand-wringing testimony at hearings and lawsuits?

I think the only safe prediction I can make is that Amtrak, like the rest of us, is in for a very bumpy ride. But hey, bumpy rides and riding the rails go together.