I Want Trains for Christmas: More, Cleaner, & Faster
As regular readers of this blog know, I share MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s passion for infrastructure. Infrastructure proves the laissez-faire version of capitalism (and it’s modern mutation, “Reagonomics”) to be false. After all, individuals and companies do not build roads for the general public–only private roads or toll roads. Business requires transportation (which is why most ancient cities formed near rivers or seaports or on major overland trade routes) and communication. Modern business requires that this combination of transportation and communication be fast and efficient. In our post-industrial ecological mess, it also has to be as clean as possible. And the only way to get it built will be with the help of GOVERNMENT, although public/private partnerships may be a part of the mix.
So, let me make the case for relying less on cars and big rig trucks and less on air travel and more on trains. Trains ship cargo farther with less fuel for less money. If shippers switched from relying mostly on over the road trucking to a “hub and spoke” system in which trains shipped most things to local distribution centers and trucks were used for shorter distances, we would save time, money, energy, and cut pollution. That’s MORE the case if we make the trains faster, cleaner and more energy efficient and/or if we switch the trucks to bio-diesel or hybrid (bio-diesel/electric). We would not eliminate the need for air shipping, especially for international shipping, but it would also push airplane manufacturers to create less polluting planes in order to compete.
We also need more passenger trains: high speed trains between cities (and cross continental) and light-rail commuter trains within large and medium size cities.
The cost would be large (would probably need to be shared by state, local, and federal governments and private partners), but it would be investment that would pay off in numerous ways. Consider just one part of this: the need for light-rail commuter trains in big and medium size cities. Using data from www.urbanrail.net , NBBanks at Daily Kos has calculated what it would take to create adequate rail for the 39 largest U.S. cities–where where nearly 50% of Americans live. It would cost $3.19 trillion over 10 years time. That’s huge. I get that. (But notice that this is HALF of what the Iraq War costs!) I would never suggest the U.S. government pay all of that, nor that they cough up the cash all on the front end. But it is time to make large downpayments on this investment. Because that $3.19 trillion creates 7.5 million jobs (direct creation only). Most of those jobs would pay good wages. So the workers buy houses and appliances, etc. creating more jobs. All of this creates revenue that more than makes up for the investment.
But that’s not all this investment would do: It would greatly reduce pollution, including greenhouse gasses, but also ozone depletion, smog, etc. Even if the trains were no more energy efficient than currently, it would cut pollution more than if EVERY SINGLE automobile on the road were hybrids or bio-diesel. If we make the trains greener/cleaner, then we cut even more pollution. And we cut commuting time–even for those still using cars because there are less on the road. This helps businesses, too. The cleaner air (I am focusing on pollution broadly because this argument should work even for those who wierdly believe that global warming is a hoax) attracts more good businesses and entrepeneurs to those cities, too. Less smog reduces asthma and other public health risks. This lowers health care costs for everyone.
More light rail in urban areas means less widening of highways for more cars–which means more green area in urban centers, again making them attract more business and entrepeneurs. This increases the tax base for cities (and, thus, states, and the federal government) which leads to more money for good schools, etc. in a virtuous circle.
Trains are not the answer to everything. We also need a new energy grid, heavy investment in green energy (I support the Repower America campaign to generate 100% of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources: solar, wind, geo-thermal, hydro-electric, within 10 years), in education, in making buildings greener and more energy efficient, etc. But this one investment shows how we need to think bigger in turning the economy around–and making it more sustainable in the process.
Private enterprise won’t do this on its own. We’ve tried that. Ronald Reagan refused to invest in even traditional infrastructure upkeep in 1981 and that refusal stayed. Private enterprise did NOT step in to fill the slack. So now we have crumbling roads and bridges (and levees!) and schools–all of which makes private enterprise more expensive in shipping costs and which has increased our dependence on foreign oil, increased our pollution, etc.
So, give me trains for Christmas, Congress. Lots of trains: greener/cleaner, and faster. Give me light rail within cities (including medium size cities like Louisville and Lexington here in KY) and between them. Give me high speed trains across the continent. Give me more shipping by train in a hub and spoke system with overland trucking–and green them up, too.
I think I like trains as a man in my mid-40s more than I did as a kid. I want trains.
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