Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Infrastructure: Change We Need

Those whose mantra is “no government, the market takes care of everything,” always neglect infrastructure.  Let’s face it, folks: Private industry doesn’t build or maintain or repair public roads, bridges, railroad lines, or retro-fit old public buildings (schools, libraries, government buildings, etc) to be energy efficient and eco-friendly, or update an aging electric grid.  All of that takes government spending with tax dollars–but it creates jobs and it creates the conditions for better private sector jobs.  So, along with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, I have long awaited the time when improved infrastructure would be a “sexy” political priority again. (Although, unlike the redoubtable Ms. Maddow, I can’t quite say that I hear “bowchickabowbow” music when infrastructure plans are touted. That’s a little kinky, Rachel.  Does your partner, Mikula know about this?)  While some of Pres.-Elect Obama’s cabinet choices and announced beginning priorities have been too centrist and “Clintonesque” for this lefty, I am ecstatic that his plans to reinvigorate the economy will not only make green energy a keystone, but include a jobs package that makes deficit investment in infrastructure a major priority.

And it seems that, for now, at least, there is some real bi-partisan effort going into this, including a major infrastructure investment that has long been dear to my heart: high-speed rail.  Yes, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Arlen Spector (R-PA) have introduced The High-Speed Rail for America Act of 2008. The U.S. remains one of the few industrial nations without high-speed rail.  We basically abandoned railroads when autos and planes took over.  High speed rail creates numerous jobs and would make commuting to other job opportunities affordable.  It will be a major factor in energy independence and in fighting global warming by reducing the number of vehicles on highways and over-reliance on “commuter flights” by air.

Oil and gas prices are temporarily down, but will rise again.  This makes shipping by truck expensive unless we switch to a “hub and spoke” system whereby goods are transported by rail to major hubs before being trucked shorter distances (with cleaner fuels and more fuel-efficient trucks).  And whereas high-speed internet connections allow video-conferencing to reduce travel expenses for many companies, high-speed rail would provide alternatives to commuter flights, corporate jets, or company cars for those business trips that remain necessary–alternatives that are cheaper and greener.

I have long wanted light-rail connecting Louisville and Lexington in KY, for instance.  Several years ago, I had some part-time teaching opportunities in Lexington that could have evolved into my dream of full-time academic work (allowing me to quit my blue-collar “insurance and other benefits” second job at UPS).  But I couldn’t afford to move to Lexington while the opportunities were only part-time. And I couldn’t afford commuting by car for part-time work, either. So, I had to let these opportunities pass.  High speed light rail would have allowed me to take those opportunities while keeping my Louisville residence (and other employment–and my wife’s employment, our daughters’ schools, etc.).

Likewise, a Lexington friend wanted to re-tool for advancement by taking another degree. This degree wasn’t offered at the University of Kentucky (in Lexington), but was offered at the University of Louisville. And it involved courses that aren’t easily taken in “online” format.  The commute between Lexington and Louisville by car, however, was too time consuming (just over 1 hr each way) and expensive.  High speed rail would have allowed her to take this added degree and advance in her field.

These 2 tiny examples show that investment in infrastructure doesn’t just create jobs in the short run, but continues to create longterm economic benefits.

As Gov Ed Rendell (D-PA) of Pennsylvania likes to explain, conservatives are often advocating that government be run more like private business. Well, although businesses must watch expenses, every successful business has periods when it runs a deficit in order to invest for expansion.  Government spending on infrastructure (your taxpayer dollars at work) is investment in the whole society for the health of the economy, the environment, and for the common good.  During the great Depression, the New Deal invested in infrastructure:  The Rural Electric Act (conservatives said that farmers and small towns didn’t need electricity or phones), major hydroelectric dams (like the Tennessee Valley Authority), the Civilian Conservation Corps (which created many a rural road while also fighting erosion and bad farming and logging practices), the Works Project Administration, etc.  Now, while we try to prevent another Great Depression, we can have a 21st C. New Deal:  Repairing levees and bridges and roads; retro-fitting public buildings (or building new ones) to be more energy efficient, safer, and greener; upgrading the electric grid (key to adaptation for wind, solar, geothermal, and other green energy projects); putting in fibre-optic web connections in every community in the nation; high-speed rail, and much more.  This is long overdue.

Infrastructure investment: It may not be sexy, but it is certainly part of “the change we need.” I hope it receives broad public and bi-partisan political support and gets passed quickly. Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.


November 25, 2008 - Posted by | U.S. politics

1 Comment

  1. […] of the rail … but this ignores very the different population densities in the States vs […]

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