Morning Joe

In which Joe Biden drives to a train station and back.

Joe Biden. Click image to expand.
Joe Biden

“Joe Biden knows you’re freezing,” says Joe Biden, huddled outside a train station in Laurel, Md., on a brisk Thursday morning. That’s why Joe Biden is going to keep this brief. Joe Biden is also going to keep it brief because Joe Biden is now the vice president of the United States, and unlike a second-tier Democratic candidate—say, Joe Biden—the vice president can’t go around shooting off his mouth at press conferences. But most important, Joe Biden is going to keep it brief because there’s no time to waste. Congress has to pass the stimulus package now.

“Quite simply, we cannot wait,” Biden says. “We cannot wait another two weeks, three weeks, four weeks. We cannot wait.”

As Biden speaks, senators from both parties are hashing out the details of the recovery package on Capitol Hill. Barack Obama is visiting the Energy Department to make his case for the stimulus. Interest groups on both sides are lobbying to get their projects included and their rivals’ cut out. Everyone, that is, except Joe Biden.

Why did Biden come all the way out to Laurel just to tell everyone back in D.C. to hurry up? Because the stimulus bill isn’t about Washington, he says—it’s about the states. “Over 400,000 jobs nationally will be created by the infrastructure investments that the Congress, God willing, is going to pass and the president is going to sign into law very shortly,” Biden tells reporters. About 70,000 jobs would be saved or created in Maryland alone. Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Ben Cardin, who flank Biden, nod as if to confirm this.

Another reason for the schlep: symbolism. It’s commuter stations like this one, a rundown brick structure built in 1842 that is now the busiest station on the Camden line, that would benefit from the recovery package. (Indeed, the advance team did their homework: The station is literally on Main Street.) Workers would replace the rotting floorboards with some solid and shiny material. They’d waterproof the eroding brick. Maybe they’d even install some of those outdoor heat lamps that warm doormen in the nicer hotels.

And it’s ready to go “the minute the governor gets the money,” Biden says. I ask if that means it’s “shovel-ready.” “This is more than shovel-ready,” says John D. Porcari, Maryland’s transportation secretary. “It’s more like a backhoe, which has a shovel on it.”

The symbolism of the event is somewhat undermined, however, by the vice president’s commute. Joe Biden used to pride himself on taking trains. Every day, he rode the commuter rail from his home in Wilmington, Del., to his office in Washington, D.C. But today he drove half an hour to this MARC train station, held forth on the importance of public transportation in the new stimulus package, and then motorcaded back to Washington.

Actually, it’s not a bad metaphor for the way transportation is being treated in the recovery bill. For all the talk about funding roads, trains, etc., only 5 percent of the $819 billion House stimulus bill goes toward transportation. And of that, only $1 billion goes to public transportation, as opposed to highways, bridges, and ports. (It’s telling that the Senate added tax breaks for car buyers Tuesday, while a $25 billion provision that included funds for mass transit stalled.) If Biden wanted his event to reflect actual spending on transportation, he would have held it on a highway median.

Furthermore, public transportation might be one of the first stimulus items on the chopping block. Senators concerned about the ballooning size of the package—it has surpassed $900 billion—are targeting projects that cost a lot to launch and even more to maintain. The $850 million devoted to Amtrak qualifies. (Not to mention the billions more sought by starving local transit systems.)

Still, there’s hope for the rails. Many Republican congressmen objected to the House bill because it had too little infrastructure spending. Florida Rep. John Mica, the ranking Republican on the House transportation committee, has called the proposed infrastructure spending “almost minuscule.” Rep. Peter King, too, wants to see “more money on infrastructure spending … more on the infrastructure … more on the infrastructure.” They may prefer highways to Amtrak. But when it comes time for the House, Senate, and White House to convene and hash out a final draft, Joe Biden may find unexpected allies.