Yes, we can afford a better future

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Nobody who is familiar with American passenger rail, or infrastructure in general, can deny the great need for rebuilding and renewal on a number of corridors, most notably the Northeast Corridor but also many others — and long-distance routes should be thought of as multiple corridors served by one train, each of which has the potential to expand.  But sadly, when questions are asked as to why we have failed to make these investments, many in government and the industry lament “we don’t have the money.” And too many people take this to be the unfortunate, but unavoidable, state of affairs.

Kansas City Union Station under construction in 1914. Photo from Union Station Kansas City Inc.
Big projects have always cost a lot of money — almost always more than was available in a particular bank account at any given time. And the transportation business has always thrived on speculation and optimism about an uncertain future. But try to imagine New York City without its subway, or San Francisco without BART or Muni. Or cities without such pride-inspiring landmarks as the Union Stations of Washington, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Los Angeles or Portland. Or this country without its railroad network or the Interstate Highway System. The standard of living we enjoy today just wouldn’t be possible. None of these was built overnight — they required multi-year commitments and the willingness to spend a lot in the short term for the promise of long-term benefit.

The returns on these investments come not just in the form of financial gain for the individuals and companies for whom commerce and employment are made easier, but also in the less tangible forms of better public service and increased civic pride. Failure to take on needed big tasks, or to take them on competently, begets public cynicism and skepticism towards leaders and “experts,” setting off a vicious cycle. But once that cycle is reversed, the civic satisfaction citizens feel in seeing things get done begets greater will to do more. Public goodwill is a valuable commodity that is not cheap.

When people say “we don’t have the money,” what I hear instead is “it’s not a priority.” Past mega-projects eventually succeeded because enough leaders decided that they were important enough priorities that they found a way to pay for them, committing the necessary resources to them each year for as long as it took. The same could be said about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like it or not, two successive presidents and majorities in Congress have decided that these war efforts were important enough to spend trillions of dollars, much of it borrowed money, for which nearly everyone could think of other (perhaps better) uses. 

For conversations to end with “we don’t have the money” represents defeatist thinking. Instead, we should all be making the case that achieving the improved mobility and connectivity, increased economic output and job creation, and long-term social and environmental benefits that these projects will deliver is something that’s worth finding a way to pay for — even if it means adding to the national debt in the short run. 

Those of us who are convinced that particular capital improvements — building new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, unclogging bottlenecks in Chicago, expanding Washington Union Station or double-tracking the North Carolina Piedmont corridor, as examples — are national necessities should be willing to mount a full-throated defense of paying for them, regardless of the grumblings of penny-pinchers and deficit hawks. Doing what needs to be done has always and will always take courage and the willingness to make down payments without an immediate return. It also requires a degree of optimism and particular attention to inspiring and maintaining public confidence. Constant fretting about how we’re going to pay for it is counterproductive.

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