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 - mistertrains@gmail.com
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