Monday, November 15, 2010

High speed to nowhere?

The following is a comment and a response to that comment that I found following this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about the governors-elect of three states, including Wisconsin, promising to reject hundreds of millions of federal dollars earmarked for the creation of High Speed Rail systems in their states. Here is comment one:

Florida's governor seems opposed to HSR as well. He's talking about "privatizing" a rail system there. He may be on to something. Let's privatize roads! Let the markets decide, you know, that Ron Johnson "creative destruction" thing. Let's put rail up against roads in a competitive, free-market scrum and let capitalism decide who lives and dies. But it's got to be a fair fight -- with no socialist subsidies either way.

And the response:

I love it. Since we have had roads and cars shoved down our throat for so so so long it is easy to forget that oil companies make billions because they do not pay for the roads that people use. Car companies also do not pay for the roads. It appears that when you get the federal government to subsidize something it forces the population to use something they might not otherwise use because they are already paying for it. The goal of transportation is to foster economic growth and profit indirectly not directly. Roads do not turn a profit.

These two folks bring up a fact that is so often neglected in the debate over public subsidies for transportation. Namely that few of us ever factor in what it costs to build and maintain the tremendous infrastructure necessary to enable us to drive our cars. We do calculate the steep cost of owning a car, payments, gas and insurance, because that comes directly out of our pockets. Yet it would be impossible to use those cars without the roads, highways and bridges that are built and maintained by the government at the local, state and federal levels. In the winter they are plowed, in the summer the potholes are filled. Government provides police and safety workers that help prevent us from killing each other and when accidents do happen, someone comes along to take care of the victims and someone else comes along to clean up the mess, all on the government's payroll. And after the roads and bridges have served their useful purpose, the government steps in and re-builds them. We take our roads and highways so much for granted that it is inconceivable that one day they will not be there for us.

If roads were privatized as the first commenter suggested, and it were up to us to pay directly out of our pockets every time we used them, and I'm not referring to the token amount we pay on tolls, gas taxes and license fees, I mean really pay for them without any government subsidies, we would not be having this conversation about whether or not we should encourage the development of high speed rail. It would be a done deal.

Of course passenger rail service today is subsidized as well, but not nearly to the extent that driving is. The cost of a rail ticket is comparable to an airline ticket (whose industry also benefits from government subsidies). Since the current system of public transportation in this country, both long and short distance, is for the most part, expensive, slow, and woefully inadequate for serving most people's needs, the vast majority of Americans, myself included, feel compelled to own a car. The choice between traveling long distance by rail or by car is unfortunately a rather simple one.

Governors-elect Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida, all Republicans fulfilling campaign promises, have taken action to stop the creation of High Speed Rail systems in their states by announcing that they will reject federal money that has already been set aside for their states. The argument of the politicians is that the money should go into repairing highway infrastructure rather then into some government "boondoggle" to build a train that "no one will use." It fit right into their "let's cut spending and lower taxes" song and dance, music to the ears of the constituents who voted for them, most of whom are probably married to their cars and would never conceive of taking a train in the first place.

"Let's just privatize passenger rail" is the mantra of those against government subsidies for High Speed Rail, knowing full well that it will not succeed as passenger rail has never succeeded in making money. True there once were the glory days of passenger rail, back when railroads were thriving businesses and traveling by rail was still glamorous. But even then a railroad was lucky if it could turn a marginal profit off of passengers. It was always transporting freight that made the railroads their money, passenger service existed almost entirely for advertising and public relations. The Interstate System of highways built under the Eisenhower administration marked the beginning of end for most of the railroads, as the trucking industry took over much of the long distance freight business and the automobile began to reign supreme as the cross country transport of choice for most Americans.

As the two commenters above pointed out, roads do not turn a profit either. But roads and highways are seen in this country as a necessity while passenger rail is seen as a nice thing to have but something we can live without. This is not so in other parts of the world.

Americans have witnessed in the first decade of the 21st Century that driving and air travel both have their downsides. We saw what happened after the tragedy of September 11, 2001 with the complete shut down of air travel in the U.S. for several days, and the economic blows the airlines took in the subsequent years. And while we have for many decades been the beneficiaries of cheap gas, we all know that the oil market is capricious, and that the days of inexpensive fuel, both in terms of cost at the gas pump and cost to the environment, are numbered. Alternative transportation systems benefit all of us, now and in the future. Without them, one day we may wake up to find that the once most mobile of nations has become paralyzed. Not only will HSR benefit the economy, but it will also play a critical role in national security. I believe that not supporting it is both short-sighted and foolish.

The future governors rightly claim that HSR will cost the states money in operating costs, perhaps in the low tens of millions per year, certainly not chump change. On the flip side there is this: once they reject the HUNDREDS of millions of dollars of federal money, it will be gone from them forever along with opportunities for new support industries, jobs and tax revenue. The money will be freed up and made available to other states to further along their own development of HSR. States such as Illinois are chomping at the bit to get it and the opportunities that it will provide.

Governors-elect, Walker, Kasich and Scott however are sticking to their guns, hell bent it seems to leave their states behind in the dust.

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