The roads go without saying

Right now we’re Rome with crappy roads. We’re a mighty world power, but when it comes to getting people and cargo easily from point A to point B, and those points are separated by hundreds of miles, the US is not so impressive. This wasn’t always the case. Freshly constructed in the 1950s, the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system was the best network of roads the world had ever seen, and became the model upon which the rest of the industrialized world patterned its highway infrastructure. But since that time the rest of the world has move ahead with its transport technology while we’ve stood still. It’s a cliche to say our national infrastructure is crumbling, but that doesn’t make the statement false. The US needs to stop coasting on accomplishments from 50 years ago… we need to build some new stuff and repair the old.

All of which is why I’m very happy to see Obama talking about high speed rail. In Europe and Japan, HSR works like a dream, with impressive efficiency both in terms of energy use per kilometer-tonne and with respect to shrinking how long it takes to get things and people from one place to another. There is absolutely no sound, objective reason why we shouldn’t build a HSR system in the US. I do not count the entrenched recalcitrance of the trucking lobby as a sound, objective reason.

I hope Obama follows through on pushing for HSR, and I hope the Dems in the House and Senate listen to reason on this issue and not keep dithering about like chickenless heads. The GOP is irrelevant to this… I’m assuming they’ll all just say no to whatever they’re asked, then scream for an ice cream cone. But if Congress can get their act together long enough, HSR would be a great boon to our nation. Building the system would take years, and would support millions of jobs. The work could be contracted out through the US DOT by competitive bid, meaning that those jobs wouldn’t have to be “government” jobs (which according to the GOP don’t exist, in any case). Would building an HSR system cost taxpayer money? You betcha it would, but the boost to national productivity from having a 21st century transport system would likely more than pay off that debt, in record time. Think about the boost we got out of the Interstate system.

Besides, are we really going to say no to trains that run by magnetic levitation?


~ by Planetologist on April 18, 2009.

3 Responses to “The roads go without saying”

  1. I do wonder about population densities, though. Certain areas of the US would benefit from HSR (the East Coast, for example), but it’s just not sustainable elsewhere. I’d be interested to see some concrete proposals.

  2. While I’d like to see more investment in trains in general (I’m an engineer, after all!), I hope the investment in trunk lines will be complemented by a push for more metropolitan mass transit as well. That’s what makes the the European system so nice is that you can take a bus to a subway to a train to a subway to Grandma’s house. Here you’d take your car to a train to rent another car!

    Plus, current US rail fares are not really any cheaper than air fare. I recently looked into taking the train to Chicago to visit the Field Museum (I have a 3 year old boy who, like most boys, is enamored of trains and dinosaurs) and the air fare was just as cheap and faster.

    We have a long way to go, but it’s good to see a start in the right direction.

  3. Even as a rail fan, I can’t see HSR as feasible outside of established markets in the eastern US. For HSR to be successful, it has to provide at least as much value as comparable transportation (airlines, etc.) over a comparable distance. To achieve that HSR will typically require both dedicated tracks and grade-separated crossings, both of which raise the costs dramatically over a shared rail network with freight. Add to that the subsidies that are required to sustain the system, subject to the whims of politicians.

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