Monday, August 24, 2009

In Which I Disagree with Robert Samuelson on High Speed Rail

I am announcing in advance foreknowledge of skating out onto the thin ice, in that I am going to publicly disagree with a man 1) with whom I almost always agree and 2) who is about a kabillion times smarter than I.

That said, Robert Samuelson just plain gets it wrong in this piece in this morning's WaPost in which he criticizes the Obama Administration for its high speed rail plans on economic/fiscal grounds. Now don't go thinking I've gotten all Hope and Change on you--I'm not. I'm a huge fan of rail, of getting people off the roads and into mass transportation, and most importantly, of the federal government's role in interstate commerce.

Of course Samuelson has a point when he looks at the costs of rail infrastructure build-out. Of course it works best in areas of the country in which we have sufficient population density. But the arguments of cost, and the arguments against the subsidizing of the operations of high speed rail--ignore the likely benefits of such a system. We all look at the interstate highway system in the US as a marvel, as the "internet" before the internet--that which unleashed the economic vitality of the country as nothing prior to the inland waterways had. Do we think that the highways built themselves? Do we think that market forces prevailed, and private companies got together and laid down the macadam? Of course not. Hundreds of millions if not billions of American tax dollars went into the construction of the system from which we all now benefit.

Transportation infrastructure is one of the VERY FEW THINGS THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OUGHT TO BE DOING. As I look at the tattered remains of federalism, of limited government, and of fiscal responsibility that remain after seven months of the Obama Administration, I can identify trillions of dollars of programs and initiatives that come up FAR SHORT of the federal role in the systematic upgrade of the country's transportation infrastructure. Getting passenger trains onto more track upon which only passenger traffic will move can and will move people faster--and also cargo that will not now have to share track with passenger trains.

I realize that some will want me to turn in my Ronald Reagan fan club button when I advocate FOR subsidizing rail construction and operation, but at the end of the day, THIS IS WHAT THE FEDS ARE FOR. Why not subsidize? Where do we think the "subsidies" come from in the first place? Our tax dollars, of course. When I think of the waste made of federal revenue, I realize the first and best use of tax dollars is to leave them in their natural state--income accrued by citizens. But close behind "provid(ing) for the common defense" comes promotion of the general welfare--something I believe an integrated transportation system in this country would go a long way toward enabling. High speed rail is a big part of that system.

4 comments:

Robert Thorn said...

Interesting 4-part series on NY Times Economix blog by Ed Glaeser - cited in the Samuelson piece.

http://tinyurl.com/n37vmt

One of the commenters provided a link that calculated cost in 2008 dollars of the interstate highway system:

http://historical.whatitcosts.com/facts-interstate-highway-system-pg2.htm

The Conservative Wahoo said...

But what do YOU think, RT?

Doc Milnamo said...

One of my Utopian dreams (may I utter the "U-word" here?) has to do with a High-Speed Rail system. This system is for freight, human and otherwise but allow me to concentrate of the non-human freight, usually just called freight.

I'd love to see long-haul truckers off the road. I have nothing against them; them being the trucks and those performing the driving. What I'd love to see replacing the current picture is a freight system in which everything moves by rail. The trucks you see on the road would be to move goods from the railhead to a distribution center and trucks which deliver from this center to the consumer/store/etc.

I know this is being done today and has been ongoing for years and years. It just needs to be stepped up a few notches.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see more notches.

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