High speed rail remains a sort of punching bag when it comes to rhetoric about government spending and America’s unstoppable devotion to the automobile. I’m not one to get too political about sustainability since I think it should be a non-political common sense issue. But sometimes I have to let things fly. Even in an era of deep deficit, some government spending is a good thing, and High Speed Rail happens to be high on that list.
First, let’s run down a few of the reasons why:
High Speed Rail is the most important US infrastructure project since the interstate highway system. You can read some more of my ramblings on the topic here, but the key points are these:
- It’s cleaner, more comfortable, and more convenient that any other way between cities less than 350 miles apart. Even JetBlue’s COO agrees.
- It’s also FASTER than flying or driving when door-to-door times are compared
- Rail stimulates massive sustainable economic development around stations – reinvigorating forgotten downtowns and post industrial brownfields and creating neighborhoods that are more desirable to live and do business in.
- By stimulating further development of walkable neighborhoods and alternatives to car travel, HSR impacts social problems including obesity and access to jobs.
- Freeways and airports are increasingly congested, fraught with environmental and social externalities and very expensive to maintain and expand.
- People love it once they try it.
Unfortunately, there’s almost no way a real high speed network will be built in the United States without direct government funding. The reason is simple – it’s very expensive to get started, and requires all kinds of political cooperation from the federal to the local level. There is, however, a plausible argument that NOT building high speed rail (and related non car infrastructural improvements) would actually be more expensive in the long term – widening a freeway (something I compare to an obese person loosening his belt) is astronomically expensive, as is expanding airports. Plus, freeways and airports offer none of the additional benefits that high speed rail provides.
If you’re still not convinced, perhaps a trip to Europe or China would convince you.
Meanwhile in Wisconsin:
Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced funding for a first batch of high speed rail service on several key routes in the US. Many of these will radiate from Chicago – the continent’s transportation hub. The very first line will ultimately connect Chicago to Minneapolis via Milwaukee and Madison. Phase one will be an extension of the existing Chicago/Milwaukee line to Madison – a project that is fully funded by $810Million in stimulus money. It’s a gift horse if there ever was one to the people of Wisconsin.
Now, with the mid term election creeping into view, Republican gubernatorial challenger Scott Walker has pledged – I kid you not – to “return” the $810M in stimulus money to Washington and halt construction of the train.
His argument? That the state will ultimately be forced to pay for upkeep of an empty train.
My argument? Although maintenance costs are not trivial, they are peanuts compared to maintaining highways. And given that this is only phase one of a much larger system, it’s a small, timely investment in something that will pay off in spades later on.
Walker’s abominable “No Train” campaign (web design by a 5 year old, evidently) is a dirt cheap political stunt to shock people who are scared of anything new and who have been led to believe that anything without four wheels and a v8 engine is a communist plot into voting for him. This is despite the fact that the proposed train would create jobs and stimulate new business in his own state. It’s a real shame that any politician, Democrat or Republican would stoop to such a level, but such is the reality of the anti-obama moment.
Why the heck does this matter to me?
If the Wisconsin segment of High Speed Rail is allowed to be turned into a political casualty, rest assured your state is next. This even goes for California where local squabbles, lawsuits, and similar political climate already threaten to push costs into the stratosphere.
Republicans and Democrats alike should favor High Speed Rail as a job creating investment in a cleaner, greener country.
Please visit the Midwest High Speed Rail website and spread the word to friends and colleagues in the area.