Getting federal money to boost higher-speed rail service from Richmond to Washington has been a major priority of the local business elite since Barack Obama took office. Now it is crashing head-on with conservative orthodoxy.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton has announced the state will not seek some of the $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail funding after Florida's conservative governor nixed plans for a rail project linking Tampa with Orlando.
Gov. Rick Scott scored by points nationally with the right-wing anti-government spending crowd when he refused the funds, saying that the train project would only cut a few minutes off what it normally takes motorists to make the Florida trip.
Connaughton says the state can't afford to apply for the federal funds. Virginia must put up 20 percent of the $1.8 billion needed to improve service from Richmond to Washington, for example, in order to qualify. The state also would have to return the funds if it missed a deadline for construction. The state has already received $75 million to improve passenger rail from Richmond to Washington's Union Station — the goal being a 90-minute commute — bypassing car-clogged Interstate 95.
This bit of fiscal reality flies in the face of what Richmond's business community, including such luminaries as former grocer Jim Ukrop and financier S. Buford Scott, wants. Henrico's Eric Cantor, the federal budget slashing House majority leader, also is on board with federal bucks for Virginia rails.
To make the quest seem dogmatically correct, the business elite imported William S. Lind of the Arlington-based American Conservative Center for Public Transportation to Richmond March 30 to give higher speed rail a right-wing imprimatur.
"This is something we can afford," Lind told 60 listeners at the Colony Club.