HSR, Like Everything Else In American Civilization, Is a Victim of Austerity
In a somewhat unusual development, the social media news website Mashable has an article on high speed rail. Titled What’s the Hold Up? it’s a good discussion of HSR projects around the world and challenges faced here in the United States in building them:
The underlying issues when it comes to high-speed rail projects are often political. Or, to put a finer point on it: the underlying issues revolve around government subsidies. Proponents say that would-be riders can’t get their voices above the din of tax-conscious objectors.
“The people who want trains are dispersed, and not recognizing that if they want trains they have to tell their Congressman they want them,” [Rick] Harnish says. “And on the other hand, people who think that any government spending is Communist and evil make their voices heard very frequently.”
Harnish, head of Midwest High Speed Rail, has it right. The opposition to HSR is primarily rooted in an aversion to spending money. We live in an era defined by the collapse of western civilization due to a stunning refusal to allow government to spend money. Herbert Hoover lost the argument against spending during the 1930s, but he has won it here in the 2010s. Congress is controlled by a right-wing political movement that opposes government spending, and the results are catastrophic for the operation of a modern society.
Austerity is destroying the modern America that we all grew up taking for granted. Schools are being gutted by budget cuts. Scientists are looking to leave the United States due to the federal sequester. Millions are forced to go without health care. The Tea Party-controlled Congress is looking to gut the food stamps program.
High speed rail is a casualty of this insane war on modern life. We are living off the massive infrastructure investments made in the 20th century, even as they decay, and make excuses for not making new investments. Mashable quotes a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor who makes the case for refusing to build anything new:
“It’s easy for me to advocate for a system when somebody else is paying for it,” says William Ibbs, professor of civil engineering at Berkeley Research, at the University of California. “Most rail systems require about one third of their costs to be subsidized and virtually all of the capital costs to be subsidized.”
Ibbs suggests that a better use of money would be to expand road-based systems that he says are more dynamic, flexible and widely used — he says that highways are able to accommodate shifting population in ways that perhaps fixed rail would not.
This is an absurd argument from Ibbs, who clearly does not know that in modern societies with large urban populations, high speed rail functions very well at moving people around. Ibbs’ argument is rooted in the 1950s-era belief that the automobile will provide for all our transportation needs, when in fact they are failing to do exactly that. Mass transit is the future of metropolitan America, particularly in California where existing passenger rail systems see high ridership.
As Ibbs should know, most major institutions in America have their capital and operating costs subsidized. He teaches at a university that became the greatest public university on the planet because of those very subsidies he now criticizes – a university whose reputation is being threatened by years of budget cuts in Sacramento.
Austerity is threatening America’s ability to innovate, build, solve problems, and meet the needs of the 21st century. High speed rail is just one of the more important and high profile casualties of this mad war on the future.
The nice thing is that this austerity mania will come to an end, and soon. It will run its course before much longer and we will be able again to spend money to build a great society. The question before us is what lasting damage will be caused by this austerity. At least California has, so far, rejected the reckless approach and continues to press ahead with HSR and other important investments. In doing so, it serves as a beacon in the night.