No other issue personifies the dysfunction at the heart of America — or as they would say on Twitter, #AmericaFail — as much as the inability to move ahead with high-speed rail. The Obama administration and Democratic-controlled Congress never made a serious effort. The $13 billion initially offered is nothing compared with what's needed. By comparison, China is spending $100 billion a year. Much of the money here would go to higher-speed rail, not the 155-mile-per-hour-plus systems that qualify as genuine high-speed rail. And the choice of Florida for the nation's first HSR line was always misplaced: Florida is a car-culture, suburbanized state, especially in Orlando and Tampa, the destinations of the line, with little appreciation or habit of taking trains. HSR would better be tried in rail-friendly territory, such as California or the Pacific Northwest, or making the Northeast Corridor true high speed. Then Americans could see how well such a system would really work. Now, with Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida refusing the federal money, and the GOP-controlled House solidly anti-rail, it looks as if even this modest start will come to little.
The Republican fetish against trains and transit, so well articulated by George Will (and followed by priceless takedowns by Paul Krugman and Jim Kunstler) has always fascinated me. It was Abraham Lincoln who started the heavily subsidized transcontinental railroad. Republican presidents after him further subsidized more railroads through land grants. "Internal improvements" was a key Republican issue. No more. Republicans routinely refuse to even consider rail or rail transit as necessary options for the nation. They most of all wage war against Amtrak, keeping it too underfunded to succeed with frequent, convenient schedules (and it's still wildly popular). These "conservatives" had no interest in conserving what was once the world's most advanced passenger rail system. Is it that they represent the suburbs and exurbs, so are mindless creatures of car culture. Or is it the billions spent by the oil, auto and sprawl industries to ensure America stays mired in a 1970s transportation system? Indeed, the U.S. government gives oil and gas companies $41 billion a year, nearly 40 times Amtrak's annual budget. As usual, the fecklessness of Democrats enables the problem (oh, for a real opposition party).
In the real world, passenger trains are a major part of the transportation systems of advanced nations. The April edition of Trains magazine, a special report on HSR (not available online, alas), is quite an eye-opener.
Do these systems take government subsidies? You bet. But, contrary to GOP myth, no common transportation system exists without them. Freeways and roads don't pay for themselves. The airline industry has benefited from decades of overt and hidden government support. Only trains and transit are supposed to "pay for themselves" in the American mind. Nations that subsidize balanced, forward-looking transportation systems get much in return. We just get rising external costs, however much they are not counted.
In addition to giving travelers choices and cutting congestion, HSR is a significant environmental help, moving far more people via electricity than can be moved with smog-belching cars and airplanes, or with the chimera, electric cars. It allows airlines to focus on what they do best, longer-distance travel. And it's a huge jobs generator. More than 110,000 workers were working on the $33 billion Beijing-Shanghai line in 2009. Entire industries are being created and expanded. That's right, dear business-friendly right-wingers. In shutting down HSR in America, you have shut the door on such global HSR players as Siemens, Nippon Sharyo, Sumitomo, Kawasaki, Skanska, Veolia, who would have employed Americans. And killed potentially American-born companies. Jingos, where's your pride when faced with this further evidence that America can't do great things anymore? We're retiring the space shuttles, essentially bowing out of space exploration (sure, the private sector will do this, sure). A 20-lane freeway is not the mark of an advancing civilization. And, ye hawks, having an inferior rail system is a direct threat to national security because...
The bad news is that a high-cost energy future is coming, whether the clueless drive-a-hundred-miles-each-way American suburbanite wants it or not (I wrote about this in a recent Seattle Times column). Alt-fuels won't save us: They will cost more and require more fossil fuel inputs than the energy they produce. Electric cars won't save us; electric cars are not a power source, and will cost more. Child-like faith in the Bakken Formation of the Dakotas, deepwater horizontal drilling, oil shale and tar sands won't. What oil there actually is will be very expensive to reach and refine, with horrific environmental consequences. Drill, baby, drill is not a solution in a world past peak oil and facing a dramatic rise in demand. Then there's climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels. It will bring economic costs beyond the worst nightmare of any deficit hawk, if that's the only node of one's thinking, not to mention horrendous social dislocations, geopolitical instability and (especially for you evangelicals and Mormons) destruction of the precious planet over which the Lord allowed us stewardship. We couldn't even rebuild our conventional passenger rail system, or use the pause of the Great Recession to retrofit part of suburbia with transit.
We're quite giddy here in the Northwest because of the decisions in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida. It means more money for the highly successful Amtrak Cascades corridor that runs from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore., and particularly for train service between Seattle and Portland. The Cascades began in 1994 and have expanded gradually, based mostly on Washington state funding. Now, with $590 million in new federal money, the system can be expanded beyond the four daily round-trips (along with Sounder commuter trains in the Seattle area and the Coast Starlight long-distance train). It's a good model of how sustained state support, working with the freight railroads and an open-minded populace, can make trains work even against the resistance nationally. Imagine if Phoenix and Tucson could even recover the three round-trip trains they enjoyed until the late 1960s.
Still, it's a small accomplishment against such looming troubles. The shock and awe are on their way, and this time we'll be on the receiving end.