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An infrastructure agenda, or “alternative facts?”

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, January 30, 2017

I and many other longtime rail passenger advocates were buoyed somewhat, at a time when there is a lot of troubling news coming from the high levels of the federal executive branch, by last Monday’s release (via McClatchy Newspapers) of a document claiming to show a list of 50 nationally significant infrastructure projects that were priorities for the Trump transition team. Included on this list were 11 rail projects, among them the vital Gateway Project to ease the cross-Hudson River bottleneck on the Northeast Corridor and rebuild the crumbling tunnels into New York Penn Station, along with the Texas Central high-speed railway, rebuilds of Chicago and DC’s Union Stations and major improvements to rail transit lines.

But on Wednesday, a report came out that the document does not reflect an actual administration wish list, but was instead presented to the transition team by lobbying group CG/LA Infrastructure, reflective of priorities that group wanted the administration to pursue. The transition team then passed the document along to the National Governors Association, which then leaked it to McClatchy. 

At the same time, it was reported last week (and the accuracy of this statement not contested since) that the budget that the White House will propose to Congress in February will be largely based on a budget suggested by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. This budget would greatly reduce or eliminate funding for many rail and transit programs, including zeroing out operating and capital grants to Amtrak.

This episode of mixed signals is just another very worrisome occurrence in an era when national leaders can make demonstrably untrue statements to the press and public and later claim they were presenting “alternative facts.” We heard Trump and his surrogates talk often of rebuilding infrastructure and other measures to boost the economy during the campaign, but leading Republicans in Congress have consistently made clear that a top priority is to cut discretionary domestic spending. Sorry, but it’s near impossible to have it both ways — only time will tell which priority will be administration policy and which will be “alternative policy.”

While investing heavily in rail and transit remains among my personal top five national priorities, as I’m sure is the case for most of you Trains readers, there is a lot else happening that should concern us all. The very governing structure of the United States, defined by checks and balances and the open exchange of information and ideas, along with the international institutions that have maintained relative peace and facilitated global exchange since World War II’s end, are all under unprecedented threat. All of these foundational elements enable the freedoms and standard of living that we Americans enjoy today. Not to mention that the administration denies the existence of the single greatest threat to humanity’s near-term thriving.

It is up to all of us, regardless of our political leanings and other labels we apply to ourselves, to remain informed, to avoid being swayed by misinformation and disinformation to the extent possible, and raise our voices where warranted. If we limit ourselves to reading and consuming information only about a few things we care about, such as trains, we risk being convinced of our own “alternative facts” and losing sight of the bigger picture.

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