Who will be our next Ike?

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, January 3, 2017

            Our 48,000 miles of interstate highways constitute the crown jewel of this nation’s infrastructure, bigger in their impact on our lives than even our world-class freight railroads. Without the interstate network, created by act of Congress six decades ago this June, our economy would today be a fraction of its present size. But I am tired of hearing arguments that say if we can build an interstate highway network, high-speed passenger rail is a no-brainer. Or that if high-speed trains can exist in Spain and Italy—Italy of all places!!! Its economy has been frozen in place for what seems like centuries!—there is no excuse for such trains not sprouting in the United States of America.

            The arguments are attractive, but leak like rusty radiators. First of all, ours is a small-government, low-taxation country, at least compared to other developed nations. Our ethos is that if it can’t make money, don’t do it. We have constitutional checks and balances, meaning that unlike places like China or Russia or parliamentary governments like France, the president can propose anything he or she wishes, but Congress jealously grips the purse strings. And within Congress, regional interests compete for control of that purse. To be blunt, the population densities that could support high-speed rail exist primarily along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but the votes to pay for such projects reside in the vast middle of the country. Result: Nothing gets done.

            So we end up with what I admit are ridiculous situations. On the East Coast, Amtrak struggles to modernize the Washington-to-Boston Northeast Corridor. The Federal Railroad Administration last December put the cost of modernization at $132 billion in capital investments. The states through which the NEC passes can’t come close to paying a bill of that size. Just look at Connecticut; if it raises taxes one more time, it risks mass exodus. This means that it’s up to Congress to summon the will and find a way. But try telling the senators and representatives from South Carolina or Louisiana or Wyoming or Idaho or Kansas or Kentucky that they should vote for a massive undertaking that has no bearing at all on their constituents.

            And on the West Coast we have California struggling to build a high-speed network on its own, at a cost last pegged at $68 billion. I wish Californians well, because if it ever gets built, this railroad will be hugely popular, in my opinion.  

            Given all these impediments, what would it take to create a high-speed train culture? In two words, vision and leadership. Dwight Eisenhower displayed both in the mid 1950s. America’s love of the automobile was at its height. Talk about superhighways went back decades, but it was just talk. Ike thought big, the time was ripe, and he caught the national imagination. It’s also important to note that the interstates became politically popular because all states and every Average Joe could reap the benefits.

            Now think back to 2009. Barack Obama had the right idea, perhaps: a network of high- or higher-speed trains. The Recovery Act of that year appropriated $8 billion in what was called “seed money.” And just as with the interstate highways, all 50 states got some of that pot, quite often just to write up and file away a state railroad plan. But Obama invested no political capital whatever in this idea, it was ineptly executed by the Department of Transportation, and it certainly never caught the national imagination (or the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Washington). Try this: Count on the fingers of even one hand where this money was put to good use. I give up after four fingers, those places being Illinois, North Carolina, Washington, and . . . uh, let me think some more. And for good measure, the FRA late in 2016 refused to lend California $15 billion for its high-speed system.

            Going back to vision and leadership, we have lots of the former. California has vision, if not yet the billions to back it up. Amtrak has a clear vision of what the NEC could become. The creators of Texas Central Railway, meant to link Houston and Dallas, have vision in spades. So does Fortress Investment Group, which owns the Florida East Coast Railway and spotted a unique set of circumstances that may make possible a profitable passenger train schedule linking Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando.

            That brings us to leadership. Someone has to break through the inertia, and it may well be Donald J. Trump. Our president-elect is a Republican but not a tea party train-hater or a fiscal conservative. He is a builder. He thinks big. He talks jobs and infrastructure, and if he really means it, what better symbol of new infrastructure than high-speed trains? I suspect most Republicans in Congress would go along, because they have a lot invested in his success. As for Democrats, we all know they swoon at the suggestion of high-speed rail. If he learns from Obama’s mistakes, Trump would put meaningful amounts of money into five or six regional projects—the Northeast Corridor, California High Speed Rail, Texas Central, Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Detroit, and Florida, for instance. In other words, invest to really make a difference.

            Odds of this actually happening are slender, I admit. But as with highways in 1956, the time is now for fast trains, and our 45th president is in a unique position, being both a builder of big things and a maverick politician, to lead the way, if he so chooses.--Fred W. Frailey 

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