The Obama administration has re-started its campaign for high-speed rail this week. I want to believe in it. I love all trains, and especially fast ones with aero nosecones like rockets, speeding through a field of sunflowers while cozy inside, passengers read Proust on a Kindle and sip Cointreau from Bohemian crystal.
But given that deficit-hawk Republicans committed to paring federal discretionary spending back to 2008 levels control the House, I think Obama’s rail plan has as much chance in Congress as a polar bear has on “Fox and Friends.”
And, I’m peak-oil enough to see that even if America builds a network of fast trains, given the cost of high-speed rail and the impacts already being felt on the economy from long-term oil depletion, at this point any HSR plan may be too little too late.
Please, tell me I’m wrong. Please. I could really use a Cointreau.
“Amtrak Joe’s” whistle-stop tour
On Wednesday, bless ’em, Vice President Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood embarked at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to re-start the administration’s campaign to build a national high-speed rail network.
“In the next 40 years, the United States is expected to increase in population by 100 million people,” said Biden, who’s known to rail boosters as “Amtrak Joe” for the thousands of commutes he’s made over the years from Wilmington, DE to the capital. “Seventy percent of all people in America now live within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean. You know how congested we are now. What happens with 100 million more?”
Calling for $53 billion over six years, including $8 billion in the coming fiscal year, the plan’s ultimate goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. The new money would add to $10.5 billion already devoted to HSR from the stimulus and the 2010 budget, for a total of $63.5 billion.
That kind of scratch would help put passenger trains on more of a level field with planes and automobiles. Sort of. If you forget about the last 50 years.
“When you talk about the investments we’re making in rail, they pale in comparison to investment you’d have to make in runways or highways,” Biden added. “And that’s before you factor in the environmental benefit of taking cars off the road.”
You go Joe! But is anybody listening? Anybody?
Boehner’s not boarding that train
And now we’ve come to the place in any story on trains/clean energy/saving polar bears where we talk about how the GOP is going to kill the whole thing. And all brought to you courtesy of our generous sponsors, the House Republican leadership and Americans for Prosperity. As GOOD writes,
The six-year plan mirrors the length of the proposed transportation budget authorization, so in theory this could all get approved in one fell swoop. But don’t expect it to be so simple. Congressional Republicans, who will have to approve the funding, have all but guaranteed any new spending proposals to run into a brick wall. (And trains have recently, perplexingly, been a prime target of conservative vitriol.) But if the administration keeps up with the smart, pointed messaging, popular support could overwhelm partisan ideology.
Maybe. Depends on what you’re smokin’, I guess. Because even if it’s Acapulco Gold, you gotta see how that popular support would have a whole mess of partisan ideology to overwhelm.
After the 2010 midterm elections, incoming governors in Wisconsin and Ohio killed their state’s high-speed rail projects, sending dump trucks of Obamacash back to Washington. Even California’s HSR plans are embroiled in partisan infighting.
“The same lame scenario is playing out right now in Florida,” explains AlterNet, “whose governor-elect Rick Scott is jeopardizing billions of stimulus dollars and much-needed jobs for no good reason, despite the fact that his state is the closest to making high-speed rail a sustainable reality.”
Well, suck it up, orange-lovers. You voted for the guy. Even if you already had a maglev train running from Tallahassee straight into Disney World, Governor Scott apparently hates fast trains so much that he would probably hire Mickey and Goofy to pull up the tracks and sell them to China for scrap.
Low-speed rail or no-speed rail
OK, let’s say that Obama and Biden can magically levitate Tea Partying Republicans into spending billions on what those same Republicans have already dubbed socialism. Maybe the White House could offer to name the train system after Ronald Reagan. And throw in a war with Iran. Then make it the 51st state of the USA. Under Governor Sarah Palin. That might do it if Boehner was in a good mood.
But once America’s bought a shiny high-tech rail system, how would we keep that new car scent?
Peak oil has come, and the extended consequences of energy depletion have already started to make the Great Recession look a lot like the start of Jim Kunstler’s Long Emergency. As our bridges and roads crack and crumble by the month, how long into the future do we really think our economy could continue to support the highest of high-tech infrastructure?
High-speed trains that travel up to 250 miles per hour require both track and rolling stock constantly maintained to the highest standards. And the level of computer software and hardware involved makes a NASA control room for the Apollo missions look like an Xbox 360.
It would be a ton less fun, but probably more realistic, for the Obama administration to push for a less sci-fi goal than covering America in lightning-fast astro-trains. How about making the trains we already have run on time and run often enough to compete with short-haul air travel, as James McCommons writes in Waiting on a Train?
Having ridden trains in India, which runs the world’s fourth largest rail network and offers reliable service to thousands of cities, towns and villages at prices that citizens can afford, I also know that you can do trains well on a beer budget.
Shoot for the moon, but settle for Cleveland
So, since the administration is making the push, and nothing else that isn’t crappy is happening in DC on peak oil, climate change and the economy right now, I’ll have Biden’s back on this one — especially since I don’t know what nut could take the White House in 2012.
This is our chance, however slim. We should damned well take it because we know that President Palin would slice federal support for passenger rail quicker than she’d gut a bull moose.
But if HSR proves to be to be a political gamble that fails, then I’d settle for good old 20th-century technology. Trains that run at somewhat higher than a Bulgarian level. It may be the best we can do.
That would be a big improvement over the 13th-century technology of mule-cart that some peak oil people think may be the most realistic option of all.
Because if enough of us who care about energy in America keep drooling over electric cars and trying to throw more good money after bad to preserve the doomed paradigm of personal motoring, then the day of the two-mule garage can’t be far off.
— Erik Curren