November 5, 2010

A Better Idea on High-Speed Rail? From Republicans?

On the heels of the big election, we're all wondering what it means for the issues that matter most to each of us. I'm of course watching closely for signs of what this means for sustainability and the green agenda (see my last post on this).

One of the first specific things I saw on Republican intentions (outside of their non-stop attack on cap and trade for many months) was this headline on HuffPo:
"John Mica: GOP Lawmaker Poised To Head House Transportation Committee Wants To Re-Examine Obama's $10 Billion High-Speed Train Grants."

My first thought was, uh-oh, here they go again, cutting investment in critical (green) infrastructure that will create jobs and build a 21st century infrastructure for our economy to grow on (an infrastructure that China is not shy about investing in while our government seems stymied) .

But I'll admit to being really surprised at what Rep. Mica is actually saying -- his views, as presented in this article at least, made sense to me. His point apparently is not that the $10 Billion in federal stimulus for high-speed rail is a bad investment (which puts him WAY left of many of his new compatriots who want all government action to cease). But, he says, the investment plans so far haven't been logical. As is the Washington way, the stimulus funds aimed at high-speed rail were sprinkled on multiple states, including money to California (to build a line between San Francisco and San Diego), Florida (Tampa to Orlando), Missouri and Illinois (Chicago to St. Louis), and even Wisconsin (Madison to Milwaukee).

The problem, as Mica sees it, is that some of these projects won't result in real high-speed rail, and the population density doesn't always warrant the investment today. Why not start with the Northeast corridor, where the rail system might actually make money?

I'm skeptical that any major infrastructure can make money since that's not what it's for; we built railroads, roads, airports, and even the Internet to facilitate economic and population growth -- they're public goods that rarely make money. But we still should start with the most dense areas and make one region really work before sprinkling it everywhere. Granted, San Fran and Chicago are not rural outposts, but Madison, WI? I was just there this week -- it's lovely, but probably doesn't need a high speed rail line yet.

And as it turns out, many of the newly minted Republican Governors don't want the money anyway. They want to spend on roads instead, which is insane, but these funds can't be used for roads anyway.

So let's hope that when Rep. Mica says, "I am a strong advocate of high-speed rail," he means it. Let's hope this isn't some twisted, cynical bait-and-switch to eliminate needed investment.

Call me naive, but I'm still holding out hope for rational discourse in Washington -- at least about investing in the country's future.

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On November 5, 2010 5:18 PM, William Sarni said:

I completely agree.
If you look at the proposed projects many of them defy logic. Focusing on selected corridors in the NE, Midwest and West would be the logical starting point for a real commitment to high speed rail in the US. The Acela is hardly high speed and the NE desperately needs real high speed rail.

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