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Usually I avoid quotidian political subjects, but I am excited about the newly released plans for high speed rail (which fit very well with my preferred vision of the future) and I was also angered by the kneejerk opposition to those plans. It would be fun and elucidating to write about the many merits of high speed rail and the great opportunities which such a system presents. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the way that political discourse is conducted in America anymore, so I will bow to contemporary conventions and belittle its foes.
A pro-rail article from Yahoo news presented these disparaging words from a rail critic, “Only two rail corridors in the world – France’s Paris to Lyon line and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.”
Hmm, I actually don’t think anything in the transportation world covers its cost. Ken Button, whose quote makes him sound profoundly ignorant of transportation realities (and whose name makes him sound like an off-brand toy) is just blithely assuming that roads, highways, car infrastructure, and even air infrastructure is all free. In fact these things cost a great deal of money–and taxpayers foot the bill. Even “for-profit” airlines are heavily subsidized and supported by public money. But it is money that taxpayers are willing to shell out, because we like having a civilization.
Sometimes, when I’m on the subway and lack an appropriate book, I read one of New York City’s tabloids. The editorial section usually features some suburban blowhard observing that since he doesn’t take the subway he doesn’t want his tax dollars paying for it–let the strap hangers pay for it themselves with greatly increased fares. This poor logic always bothers me. An equally weak counter argument would run thus: I don’t drive, so why should my tax dollars pay for the roads? (I could add that roads are filled with dangerous maniacs who love to carelessly mow down children, working people, and even one another. Additionally cars increase our reliance on foreign oil suppliers and cause a variety of environmental problems.)
But it is wrong to dislike roads (and the automobiles on them). Roads allow goods and services to move everywhere: they are the means by which emergency vehicles get around and food is delivered. Outside the city, they are the only way to travel (except for ornithopter or pony). But, here in the northeast corridor, they are also a mess. So are airports for that matter. If we want to move around freely in the future we will need new means of doing so (maybe we won’t want to travel—we might be busy shooting arrows at each other and fighting over canned food, however politicians would be wise not to make that a centerpiece of their vision for the future). I’m sure the anti-subway driving enthusiast writing to the Daily News would find new worth for the subway if all 5 million riders decided to drive to work (particularly if it was on the day his heart gave out and he needed an ambulance). Maybe he will even have some qualms about quashing public transportation when petrol shoots up a few more dollars (and growing instability in the middle East always makes that seem likely sooner rather than later).
Of course there are very valid concerns about the proposed high speed rail system: Amtrak is a mess (having been remade in the image of a pork barrel), and we don’t want to damage our extremely reliable freight rail service. And the whole thing is going to cost far more money than it is being billed at (money we don’t have). But I imagine that money would be thrown out anyway (remember “cash for clunkers” which subsidized wealthy car buyers to purchase new Toyotas?) and at least we’ll have beautiful new bullet trains and an additional way for people to move around the country. Additionally, such a system will be necessary when we inevitably move to a nuclear-powered world. Either opponents of the new high speed rail plans should produce some long term plans of their own or they should just come straight out and proclaim they are friends of Middle Eastern despots and that they oppose technological progress and infrastructure growth.