Monday, February 21, 2011

No Rail Projects - But Don't Touch Those Unions!

As we have been talking of late about the rare chance to fund HSR and other new Passenger Rail projects, and of the need to hold our collective taxpayer bladder and keep from pissing it away, I thought a comment or two about Wisconsin, the power of the people, and the power of labor unions would be in order.

First, I applaud Wisconsin Gov. Walker for taking a stand on spending money the state doesn't have on rail projects.  They've waited this long and they can wait a little longer.  A compromise wherein the state perhaps spends some money on planning - including a detailed study of costs and maybe even a 20-year projection as to ridership - wouldn't be out of the question.

Notice how Gov. Walker has enough political power to do this.  Passenger Rail protesters haven't packed the state capitol or called the governor a fascist.  The people of Wisconsin elected Gov. Walker and the Republicans in the statehouse to do a job, and they are trying their damndest to do it.  EVEN THOUGH railroads are typically unionized, I didn't see organized labor on the capitol steps either. 

But let the same Republican take a step that looks like union busting, and all hell breaks loose.

So a lesson, if you will.  Make that A LESSON!!! 

Political power that comes from the ballot box is how this country was set up.  But political power that comes from money and influence is always there.  As The People, we can do one of three things with that, none of which will make everyone happy all of the time. 

First, we can let it take over, as Gov. Walker is determined not to do in Wisconsin, but as it has done in the federal Executive Branch.  This is either bad, or - at best - so-so for everyone.  Bad for the general populace, the vast majority of whom are not union members, and so-so for union members.  Why so-so?  Anyone who has ever been a union member will tell you that the rank and file many times gets treated just as badly by the union leadership as it does by management. 

Second, we can fight it.  This is a so-so result for all.  Collective bargaining and the labor movement have done a lot of good things in this country, and they can do a lot more in the right settings.  I am thinking that public-sector labor is not one of those settings.  When a public-sector laborer - I'm not talking first responders - gets paid more than a private-sector laborer in the same job, things "jest ain't right."

Third, and this may be anathema to some conservatives, we can live with it.  Just like we didn't vote for Mr. Obama to take advantage of a crisis and change the face of America, we didn't vote for conservatives to do the same.  If Gov. Walker needs to flex some muscle to get the Dems back to the bargaining table, so be it.  But please don't ram through conservative changes that are just as radical as the changes that Mr. Obama has tried to make to the American political landscape.

What does this mean for Passenger Rail?  I didn't agree with the last Bush any more than I agree with the Last Obama.  You can't completely cut off a mode of transportation from government support any more than you can cut off a proven method of keeping wages and working conditions fair for some workers.  And yet, you can't just throw away money on either.  Let's hope Gov. Walker has the intelligence to see that where both labor strife and rail funding are concerned.

Can I have an Amen?

© 2011 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What's Supposed to Happen

That's not a question.

Many pundits are reporting the demise of High Speed Rail (HSR).  The reasons given are many, but the most prominent are the fact that Republicans are now in control of the House and of many state governments, and the related fact that most, if not all states, are going to take a hard, second look at what is going to be spent for HSR, both by the states and by the federal government.

I'd like to add a third main reason, and then go out on a limb.  The third main reason is the way that the Obama administration threw the funding helter skelter at so many different and disconnected HSR projects.

The limb, which I am now sawing off from the trunk side, is my belief that this did not kill HSR.  The facts just slowed it down a bit; and that is a GOOD THING.

Although some of the projects already well into or past the planning stage appear to be well thought out, from an engineering standpoint, no good thing can come of the fact that they are not designed to mesh, or in most cases even to connect.  Railroading learned its lesson in the 19th century, when the lack of a standard gauge and standard time became an obvious hindrance to the growth of business.  It's only because Private Enterprise Railroading has little to no say in these projects that they are so disconnected, or so I hope.  In any case, most freight railroads have taken a dim view of these projects, for now; and that, too, is thanks to Uncle Sam.

We have many visionary leaders in the railroad industry today.  I would like to see them come forward with plans for HSR that are national in scope and standardized from an engineering standpoint.  If we are going to use existing right of way, then the plans should say how this will hold up 20 or 30 years from now.  If we are going to pay the way for new rights of way, then we should commit to an engineering design that is so forward looking that there will be no reason to worry about how it will fit with the current system.  Maybe it will be railroading, but not railroading, something new and unique that derives from railroading only in the way that a covered hopper derives from a covered wagon. 

Yes, it'll cost money.  Our NOW, NOW, NOW mentality suggests that we would rather throw billions at it now than spend millions a year for, say, 60 years, and get something really great.  But the former would be a pity and the latter a blessing.  The push for HSR initiatives and funding NOW, in Congress and elsewhere, will be a pity.  Let's think on it, design for the future, and when the economy is back on its feet, we will be ready to build something we'll all be proud of.

©2011 - C. A. Turek -

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Let Me Be Perfectly Clear

Like a good glass of fine gin.

Compared to some bloggers, I don't get many comments.  HEY OUT THERE!  (Hands waving followed by one or two flares for effect.)  So pardon me if I take one to task for not listening. 

In my last post, I compared Pres. Obama deciding we needed HSR to Pres. Lincoln deciding we needed a transcontinantal railroad.  First the historical perspective, which I should never forget doesn't exist for most of you out there. . . (loss of readers) . . .  Lincoln saw the need to establish a transcon as a security issue.  A century and a half ago, security meant keeping the Union whole, and that meant keeping more states tied to the north.  I'm not sure that Obama knows what a security issue looks like.  I think that it is more likely he picked up HSR as a potential way to create jobs over a long period of time, kind of like the Eisenhower and the Interstates, although that was a security issue at the time as well. 

But transportation is a security issue.  As a security issue, it is one of the few things that conservatives, even fiscal conservatives, should see as worth spending taxpayer money on.  We need a balanced transportation program, and it should not just be so that somebody with enought money or enough power can travel from here to there in luxury, but it should be so that the business of the country can be carried out no matter what the internal or external circumstances; i.e., war, peace, recession, prosperity, a plague of Democrats or an infestation of Republicans. 

A balanced program would include both low- and high-speed ways for passengers, freight, and military materiel to get from point A to point B within the domestic confines of America and our closest neighbors.  Low-speed ways exist in abundance, and are currently heavily subsidized by the government.  The primary low-speed modes are highway (auto, bus, truck), rail, and internal waterway (boat, barge).  All have been heavily subsidized by government, rail the least.  While highways and waterways continue to be, there is proof that government could turn some of our highways and waterways over to private enterprise (sell them), and that private enterprise would make a profit.  Yes, the government will never recoup all its years of investment in the sale, but the taxes collected over the future years of private ownership can be shown to be more than adequate to justify the initial investments.  The government more rapidly turned over the railways to private enterprise, and realized a prosperous nation from sea to shining sea as the reward for all of the land grants that made the transcontinental routes possible.

(The proof is in the Illinois Tollway system, which, had government not decided to keep hold of the cash cow, would have paid off its bondholders.  It continues to pay for its upkeep and expansion without assistance from government subsidy except for the laws and government that allow it to function in its current form.)

The only high-speed mode we have today is air, and boy is it subsidized.  I think it could be argued that the government (read taxpayer) will never recoup its investment in airways, airports and the infrastructure that includes high-tech navigation equipment.  But I think it could also be argued that the feds could sell the airway system to private enterprise and that, by tackling efficiencies and future capital investment in the spotlight of profit, private enterprise could make a go of it and no future subsidies (perhaps except for government mandated upgrades) would be needed.

So we get back to HSR.  It is not pie-in-the-sky, because the technology exists and is proven to work.  We need HSR because the cost to invest in high-speed highways (never mind waterways) is ludicrously higher and there is no proven tech.  We need HSR for security reasons, because there will be no high-speed mode of transportation for passengers, freight or materiel if the air fleet gets grounded by any of a number of plausible threat scenarios.  We need HSR because we can engineer security measures into new infrastructure that has had to be after-the-horse-left-the-barn engineered into our existing modes. 

Bottom line: It may take another 150 years for HSR to give us the return on our investment as a nation that the transcons are giving us and the owning shareholders today.  And I am not saying that America shouldn't expect something in return.  But I, for one, am tired of my country having the short view.  There has to be a way that we, as taxpayers, can support this and realize some return, if only in the long term.

And who says HSR has to be just for passengers?

© C. A. Turek -