Bash misrepresented $700 million Lott-Cochran rail line appropriation

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

CNN's Dana Bash falsely claimed that a controversial provision inserted into an emergency spending bill by Mississippi Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran would fund a rail line that Lott and Cochran "want to be built." In fact, the $700 million appropriation would fund the senators' efforts to move the existing CSX freight line despite the fact that, following Hurricane Katrina, CSX rebuilt the line at a cost of between $250 million and $300 million.

In a report on the April 26 edition of CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, congressional correspondent Dana Bash falsely claimed that a controversial provision inserted into an emergency spending bill by Mississippi Republican Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran would fund a rail line that Lott and Cochran "want to be built." In fact, the $700 million appropriation would fund the senators' efforts to move the existing CSX freight line despite the fact that, following Hurricane Katrina, CSX rebuilt the line at a cost of between $250 million and $300 million. According to an April 18 Washington Post report, this existing track will likely be destroyed.

As the Post reported, Lott and Cochran included the CSX funding in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Hurricane Recovery, which is currently under consideration in the Senate. The provision would appropriate $700 million "for the purpose of facilitating the relocation of a rail line that was destroyed or received significant damage as the result of Hurricane Katrina and other hurricanes of the 2005 season." The Post noted that the appropriation "is just short of the price CSX set for selling its right of way, buying into the Norfolk Southern rail line [to which CSX rail traffic would move], making capacity improvements on the main line and bolstering a short line railway to bypassed areas."

As the Post noted, "CSX just spent as much as $300 million in insurance payouts and its own money to rebuild the track that Lott and Cochran now want to destroy." Bash said nothing about the fact that the line already exists and has recently been rebuilt.

In explaining the provision, Bash reported that Lott and Cochran "say it is absolutely necessary ... for evacuation, for security." Bash reported that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) "says that [the CSX provision] is unnecessary right now; it is not an emergency and should not be in there." Though Bash's viewers would not know it, Coburn explained in his April 26 floor speech why, in his view, the provision is not an "emergency":

COBURN: Although the CSX railroad was significantly damaged by Katrina, it was repaired; $250 million in insurance proceeds and I believe somewhere between $30 million and $50 million from CSX to repair it and bring it back up to usable and safe status.

According to the Post, the "real impetus" for the provision "appears to be economic" rather than national security-related or safety-related:

But even appropriations aides who are sympathetic to the earmark say the issue is more complicated than Lott's case for safety. There are inherent safety issues when rail lines run through populated areas, but those issues exist nationwide. Mississippi's rail-accident rate from 2001 to 2005 reached a 30-year low.

Much of the rail line along the Gulf Coast would remain in hurricane danger, and the proposed rerouting would affect only a small part.

The real impetus appears to be economic. For more than half a dozen years, Mississippi officials, development planners and tourism authorities have dreamed of the complex restructuring of Mississippi's coastal transportation system that Lott and Cochran now want to set in motion. Under the plan, the CSX line -- which runs a few blocks off the coast line -- would be scrapped. CSX would move its freight traffic to existing tracks to the north owned by rival Norfolk Southern.

Then U.S. 90, a wide federal highway that hugs Mississippi's beaches, would be rebuilt along the CSX rail bed. The route of the federal thoroughfare would be turned into a smaller, manicured "beach boulevard" through cities such as Biloxi, where visitors could "spend more time strolling among the casinos and taking in the views," as the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal put it.

"There's nothing wrong with this if Mississippi wants to do it. Mississippi wanted to do it before the hurricane," Coburn said. "But why is it a federal responsibility? Why should our grandchildren pay for it?"

The $700 million in the emergency spending bill is just short of the price CSX set for selling its right of way, buying into the Norfolk Southern line, making capacity improvements on the main line and bolstering a short line railway to bypassed areas. The high price was inevitable, Appropriations Committee aides said. CSX just spent as much as $300 million in insurance payouts and its own money to rebuild the track that Lott and Cochran now want to destroy.

And the cost would increase considerably if, as expected, Lott looks to annual appropriations bills to rebuild U.S. 90.

From the April 26 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BASH: Well, you know, it's an old saying around here, Wolf: One person's necessary funding is the other person's excess funding, or excess project. And that's certainly what we're seeing play out -- you're right -- on this bill. It's about $14 billion in extra funding that they're -- that they're debating right now. And the president says that he is going to veto this particular legislation if it comes to his desk with that extra $14 billion. And this is really turning into a Republican-versus-Republican fight, and it is spilling on to the Senate floor as we speak.

Because what some senators are saying is that they think that some major projects by Republican senators need to be cut. For example, the biggest example here is Mississippi. There is a railroad that the Mississippi Republican senators want to be built. They say it is absolutely necessary for -- for evacuation, for security. But Republicans like Senator Tom Coburn who is on the Senate floor -- was, just a short while ago -- he says that is unnecessary right now; it is not an emergency and should not be in there.

Posted In
Economy, Budget, Government
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Dana Bash
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
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