Wednesday, November 1, 2000

There's a fast train coming

OK. More thoughts on the referendum for a Tampa-Orlando-Miami high speed rail corridor.

High speed rail makes sense in every way. Like it or not we are moving to a post-petroleum paradigm and this kind of transportation is the wave of the future. If we wait till 2040, we'll be buying trains from China instead of selling trains to China. The energy we put into (essentially) single-rider vehicles is unsustainable.

Critics attack the bullet train with a cost-benefit analysis, basically saying it won’t have enough passengers and won’t turn a profit. How the hell do they know? That’s an assertion, not an argument. But it also misses the point.

Infrastructural investment isn’t based on immediate profit.

None of America’s massive infrastructure projects, from rural electrification to the Interstate highway system to the Tennessee Valley Authority, were based on a firm income projection. These infrastructural networks were created for the benefits they would give the public , not the benefits to investors, based on a hard-and-fast profit model. In most cases, these projects generated profit — eventually. But it was never a sure thing from the gitgo — and the profits never come until after the networks are built. That's the reason these projects had to be created with a public investment in the first place. These networks require such a massive capital outlay, a slight miscalculation could ruin a private investor. Basically, the risk of these massive infrastructural investments is too great for a private company — unless it’s a monopoly. Historically, these networks can only be built by the government, a public/private partnership guaranteed by the government, or a monopoly.
So, granted that we need this infrastructure, granted that private enterprise isn’t building it, the government is the only entity left that could possibly build it. The government has a reason to build it (the people’s common good, not profit) and a constitutional right to do it (rooted in the commerce clause). Though libertarians may disagree, that’s the legal basis for the government’s right to regulate interstate commerce, to establish roads and highways and to regulate (or subsidize) infrastructural industries like the power industry and communication. And high speed rail.

Without government investment in infrastructure, we would not have the internet, we would not have atomic power, we would not have a national interstate system, and any number of other things.
Now allow me to make a simple, obvious, possibly stupid point.

Creating jobs isn’t the point of government spending on infrastructure. It’s a side benefit, sure. But it isn’t the point.

The point of a Postal Service isn’t to give jobs to postal workers. The point of maintaining a massive infrastructure of roads and gas station isn’t to give jobs to road workers, traffic cops and car mechanics. The point is the benefit to the public these networks create.

The point of a bullet train is the train itself. Not only the direct benefit to the people who use it, but the benefit to everyone else in the country who need a similar system. High speed rail in Florida would be a demonstration model that shows the concept can work in America – and can be repeated in other states.
The assault against high-speed rail is an exercise in knowing hypocrisy.

Critics of the project think it’s bad for the government to pay for trains. But planes and automobiles? That’s different! It’s good when the government pays for them!

These critics turn a blind eye to the massive investment our government makes maintaining the infrastructure (physical and regulatory) for airplanes, roads, cars and trucks. Government handouts for cars and plains are good; handouts for bullet trains are creeping socialism.

The dice are loaded; the game is fixed.

If high speed rail is such a bad idea, why does it work in Europe, China and Japan? Would they be better off with a massively congested highway system like we have? More importantly, is the true motive for the massive resistance to high-speed rail in America a high-minded sense or financial responsibility or a love of big checks from the auto, oil and airline industries?

Let's say the referendum passes. Let's say by 2009, this thing is up and running. Let's say high speed rail works. What then?
If high speed rail works in Florida, it could work anywhere. The auto and airline industry might sorta see that as a threat, dontcha think?

Just saying. It's probably a moot point.

I've got a feeling the referendum is going to pass.

All on board, kids.