California’s Erie Canal
Over at The Atlantic Cities, Eric Jaffe endorses the call for California to fund high speed rail itself. And he reminds readers that there is precedent for such an approach, referring back to a November 2011 post he wrote:
There is a parallel to be drawn here in rail history. In 1835, Boston became the first U.S. rail hub, sparking an interest in the new mode that swept across the young nation. That feat was achieved because a few local visionaries, recognizing they could not rely on money from higher levels of government, went out and raised enough to pay for some pilot lines themselves — certain that in time the railroads would prove their worth. It may be time for California to do the same.
Boston’s attempt to jumpstart railroads was subject to the same kind of attacks that we see being leveled at the California high speed rail project. Similar attacks were made on a project I see as being even more of a parallel: the Erie Canal.
In the 1810s, New York mayor DeWitt Clinton championed the long-discussed Erie Canal as a way to connect New York City and the Hudson River Valley to the fast-growing regions of Western New York and to the Great Lakes hinterland. The plan aroused intense opposition from those who considered it a waste of money, spent on a hope and a prayer, leading to charges it was “Clinton’s Folly.”
Such opposition led to the federal government withdrawing its promises to help fund the project. In 1816 President James Madison vetoed a bill that would have funded the federal contribution to the Erie Canal. Clinton became governor of New York in 1817, and got the legislature to approve funding to build the canal. New York was forced to go it alone, and did so.
The benefits were enormous. Historians contend that the canal was the crucial factor in giving New York City the competitive advantage over Philadelphia and Boston in the 19th century, as the canal gave NYC direct access to the huge agricultural output of the upper Midwest. Neither Boston nor Philly had that, and because New York got there first, they got to keep the spoils.
We are living in a political era that is increasingly resembling that of the Early Republic. Today’s Tea Party resembles very much the Jacksonian Democracy, particularly in its vehement opposition to any federal funding of “internal improvements.” Prior to the 1860s, proposals for the federal government to fund internal improvements were routinely killed by Congress or the president. This dispute was one of the key factors that led to the creation of the pro-infrastructure Whig Party out of dissatisfied members of the anti-infrastructure Democratic Party in the 1830s. After the South seceded, giving pro-infrastructure Republicans huge majorities in Congress, and for over a hundred years since, it was never any question of whether the federal government should fund infrastructure projects – everyone agreed the answer was yes.
New York built a century of prosperity by digging the Erie Canal. Traffic on the canal peaked in 1872, 50 years after it opened. It, and a successor canal (the New York State Barge Canal), dominated shipping from the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region until the 1950s when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. That’s 125 years of successful service by the state-built canals of New York.
California faces a similar crossroads. It is one of the globe’s leading economies, but the rising cost of oil and carbon emissions threaten its position as well as threaten to introduce huge new costs. High speed rail may not have quite the impact of the Erie Canal, but it could be close, especially as it opens up the Central Valley for significant new investment and economic activity while saving the coasts money as well.
The federal government is reverting to the bad old ways of the antebellum years, at least when it comes to infrastructure funding. It’s time for states like California to stop waiting for Congress and move ahead on its own.