Japan Wants to Help Fund Maglev in the USA
Despite the promising headline I gave this post, the details are not quite as rosy. The Japanese government is busy building a maglev line to connect Tokyo to Osaka. But they also are under pressure – unnecessary but very real – to make money off this technology. So Japan is trying to pitch American governments on buying their maglev tech, offering some startup funding – but only if Americans fund the rest of it.
To interest lawmakers and investors in the United States in the Japanese technology, Japan has offered to cover several billion dollars in costs. The commitment of Japanese taxpayer money is a sign of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s determination to do whatever it takes to prime the Japanese economy and to restore Japan’s fading reputation for technological prowess.
Japan’s maglev could easily become Mr. Abe’s boondoggle unless Japan can export it. Even in Japan, the maglev faces considerable skepticism. One reason is the cost, which is as breathtaking as the speed: the estimated budget for the Tokyo-Osaka line has risen to nearly $100 billion.
So Mr. Abe is looking for a prominent overseas showcase. That is why the former [American] politicians were here.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to explain how completely screwed up this thinking is. So what if the cost is $100 billion? Only in our austerity-obsessed bizarro world in which we now live is that considered somehow problematic. Maglev is the next evolutionary step for intercity passenger trains. It provides faster speeds using electric power, providing better service without burning fossil fuels to do so. In a society that is focused on progress and innovation rather than penny-pinching, the fact that Japan is building such a system would be cause for celebration.
Instead, you see the same ridiculous criticisms leveled at Japan’s maglev plans that have been thrown at California high speed rail:
The Tokyo-Nagoya portion is not expected to be completed until 2027, with the Nagoya-Osaka stretch to follow only in 2045. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research expects that by that time, the population of Japan will have declined to about 105 million from the current 127 million, raising questions of whether there will be enough people to ride a speedy new train.
“If you seriously take a look at its high cost and low demand, you’ll find it makes no business sense,” said Reijiro Hashiyama, a visiting professor at Chiba University of Commerce who has argued against the project for years.
Let’s be clear here. In a country like Japan, with a mature national network of high speed trains, maglev is the next obvious step. It doesn’t matter if the population is falling, since they’ll still see the benefits of faster electric trains. Infrastructure projects like a passenger train should not be assessed on whether they “make business sense.” Their purpose is to serve social and civilizational goals. Of course, these goals usually do wind up helping achieve financial goals as well, since faster speeds and electric trains reduce carbon emissions and thus reduce the staggering costs that come with global warming. And the time saved creates its own economic value. So too do the savings in fossil fuel consumed and carbon emitted, although such savings will be much larger in California than they will be in Japan where they already have a mature HSR system.
In any case, Japan does still feel the need to market maglev abroad, which in itself is fine. And if they want to help with some seed money, all the better. But will America go for it?
Mr. Pataki, along with the other dignitaries on the train, including Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader; former Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania; and former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, are helping him make the sale. Along with former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who could not make the trip, they are on the advisory board of The Northeast Maglev, a company in Washington that wants to build the Washington-New York line….
To get the American line off the ground, Japan has come up with a method of financing that is similarly novel. In a meeting with President Obama last winter, Mr. Abe offered to provide the maglev guideway and propulsion system free for the first portion of the line, linking Washington and Baltimore via Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a distance of about 40 miles.
Analysts say Japan has had trouble exporting the technology. It figures if the United States takes it, others will follow.
The Northeast Maglev, the company behind the effort, wants to raise the rest of the money from private investors and public sources. The company was founded in 2010 but only recently began ramping up its lobbying in Washington, with Mr. Daschle, now a policy adviser to the law firm DLA Piper, serving as a central figure in those efforts.
Look at the names: Pataki, Rendell, Daschle, Whitman, Peters, Obama. They’re all moderate Democrats and Republicans who are generally pro-infrastructure. If they still ran the country I think they would find a way to take the money and build maglev on the DC-NYC route, which as much as I love California does seem like a logical place to pioneer maglev in America.
But here’s the problem: they don’t run the country, not any more. By steadfastly refusing to ever spend a dime on any infrastructure project, Tea Party Republicans have seized control of national infrastructure policy. Japan can offer all the money it wants, but if there’s an American match required, the Tea Party will make sure to block it. The junkets with former elected officials is great PR for Japanese maglev, especially as it resulted in a New York Times article. But until they get Eric Cantor and Tom Coburn and Kevin McCarthy on those trains, they’re going to continue to struggle.
Let me suggest a different strategy to the Japanese government. Fly Jerry Brown, John Pérez, Darrell Steinberg, and whoever it is that succeeds the latter two in the legislative leadership over to Tokyo for a trip on the trains. Offer to help subsidize California’s HSR system rather than maglev. The Tea Party is a non-entity in California and we destroyed the California Republican Party as a statewide force in 2010, so Japan might actually make some headway and some profit in the Golden State. Japan was already planning on using cash flow from the Shinkansen to fund maglev. If California buys Japanese trains and technology, they can use that funds to develop maglev. And once maglev becomes mature in Japan, they can come back to California and help build it there too.
That strategy isn’t perfect. But it’s workable for both California and Japan, whereas a national strategy won’t work, not until the Tea Party’s power is broken and austerity is driven out of American politics.