The new governors of Wisconsin and Ohio have both stopped improved passenger rail service in their states. The Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, has rescinded $1.2 billion in funds that would have gone to those states. The Wisconsin project would have brought passenger service from Madison to Milwaukee. The Ohio project would have connected Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.
Why would you not want projects that create jobs, provide a service, and stimulate economic development, and, oh by the way, improves the environmental impact of the state's transportation network?
Back in the 1950's, the Eisenhower administration decided to favor car traffic over rail traffic, and so, built the nation's interstate highway system. The reason was partly national security. The administration believed that urban rail stations would easily be compromised by a nuclear attack.
The United States is way behind in terms of transportation infrastructure, and especially in regard to rail. This affects the nation's prosperity. If we can't deliver goods and services as efficiently as China or Europe, that is to our disadvantage.
The administration says that the money will be distributed to other states.
James Fallows is one of our best journalists and most astute observers. He just returned from three years in China where he went to see, first hand, what China's economic emergence looked like. See his piece in the latest Atlantic Monthly: "How America can rise again."
America continues to have the highest standard of living in the world, but he also notes that we are "embarrasingly behind" in certain areas, such as cellphones, railroads, and health care. Our cities are still vibrant, but are starting to seem run-down. Remember when freeways and highways were new and smooth? Now, potholes can swallow up a car.
“When I was growing up, these bridges and roads and dams were a source of real national pride and achievement,” Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy in Washington, who was born in 1960, told me. “My daughter was 6 when the World Trade Center towers went down, 8 when lights went off on the East Coast, 10 when a major U.S. city drowned—I saw things built, and she’s seen them fall apart.” America is supposed to be the permanent country of the New, but a lot of it just looks old.
China's emergence on the world economic stage, says Fallows, is inevitable and not even a bad thing. In terms of population, China is four times bigger than the United States. If its population produced one-fourth as much as the United States, which it will, then its total economy will be larger than ours. This is not a bad thing, but a good thing because "a business-minded China is more benign than a miserable or rebellious one." Not only that, but China's growth means expanding markets for American business.
America has advantages that China does not have, such as an open society, for example, and great universities. Jiao Tong University in Shanghai ranked the world's universities and concluded that 17 of the top 20 were in the United States. The combination of an open society with great universities attracts talent from around the world. One-fourth of the membership of the National Academy of Sciences was born outside the United States. Even when students don't stay, they take "American contacts and styles of thought" with them when they return to their home countries.
The American advantage here is broad and atmospheric, but it also depends on two specific policies that, in my view, are the absolute pillars of American strength: continued openness to immigration, and a continued concentration of universities that people around the world want to attend.
Our main problem, says Fallows, is that our political system is a "joke." He notes that, in all his travels, which are considerable, nobody has ever told him that they wished they had a Senate like ours. Fallows doesn't say this, but over the past 50 years, the number of democracies around the world has increased dramatically, but not one of them--not a single one--has modelled their democracy after ours. They are all parliamentary systems.
The problem of the Senate is that it is undemocratic. California has 69 times the population of Wyoming, but they both get two Senators. 41 Senators can block virtually any measure, and you can get 41 Senators from states which represent only 12% of the population. "This converts the Senate from the 'saucer' George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might 'cool,' into a deep freeze and a dead weight." Sixty-eight percent of the members of the National Academy for Public Administration consider that it is more difficult to get anything done today than at any time in the past.
This governmental deadlock occurs at a time when the nation's infrastructure--everything from bridges to water systems--is crumbling. With all due respect to private sector initiative, the internet, the Human Genome Project, and the GPS network all got their start through government programs--the Internet by the Pentagon, the Human Genome Project by the National Institutes of Health, and the GPS network by the Air Force. Robert Atkinson, director of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says:
“Our companies and entrepreneurs are matchless in their power to adapt. We lead in many categories the private economy can handle by itself. But where you need any public-private coordination, we’ve become handicapped. I worry that our companies can adapt, but our system can’t.”
What can be done? Fallows explores various options, all the way from a military coup to a constitutional convention to giving up on government altogether. The problem is that a decaying infrastructure will eventually impinge on the private sector's ability to compete. "I have seen enough of the world outside America to be sure that eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it."
The conjunction of private and public abundance typified America throughout its 20th-century rise. We had the big factories and the broad sidewalks, the stately mansions and the public parks. The private economy was stronger because of the public bulwarks provided by Social Security and Medicare. California is giving the first taste of how the public-private divorce will look—and its historian, Kevin Starr, says the private economy will soon suffer if the government is not repaired. “Through the country’s history, government has had to function correctly for the private sector to flourish,” he said. “John Quincy Adams built the lighthouses and the highways. That’s not ‘socialist’ but ‘Whiggish.’ Now we need ports and highways and an educated populace.” In a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package, it should have been possible to build all those things, in a contemporary, environmentally aware counterpart to the interstate-highway plan. But it didn’t happen; we’ve spent the money, incurred the debt, and done very little to repair what most needs fixing.
Remember when flying was considered glamorous? Back in the 50's and 60's, people even dressed up for it. Even if they flew one time in their life, on that day, they would be a "jet-setter," eating gourmet meals at 30,000 feet.
After the bloom was off that particular rose, we started to see flying in a more utilitarian way. Yes, it was a hassle--the schedules were off, the planes crowded, the food not food--but it was fast and we learned to live with the hassles in order to take advantage of the speed.
Then, 9.11 happened. What had been a difficult situation became an ordeal. First, you had to show up two hours early for your flight. In most cases, the flight itself isn't that long. Let's say you were going to Albuquerque. It's an hour and a half flight to Albuquerque from Denver, but arriving two hours early has upped your total travel time to three and a half hours. Now, add in the 45 minutes it took to drive to the airport in the first place, and you're up to 4 hours and 15 minutes. If you need to rent a car in Albuquerque, add another half hour. Total travel time is now around 5 hours. You can drive it in 7, and still have your car!
Then, they added in more security restrictions, so that you had to take your shoes off, and your belt, and anything else with metal larger than the rivets on your blue jeans--oh yes, you quit wearing a suit a long time ago. As you're taking off your clothes, you also have to get your laptop out and put it in a separate basket while at the same time worrying about any inadvertent items in your bags or on your person that might trigger being "pulled to the side."
Jeralyn now avoids flying, and so do I. If it's under a 12 hour drive to get to my destination, I'll be driving.
"Walkable" neighborhoods are those in which people have common daily shopping and social opportunities within a "walkable" distance. If the "walkability" of a neighborhood is above average, the homes in that neighborhood carry a premium of between $4,000 to $34,000. Full study here.
In 1942, the Montreal Limited left New York City at 11:15 p.m. and arrived in Montreal at 8:25 a.m., about 9 hours later. Today, it's a 12 hour rail trip. Chicago to Minneapolis, in the 1950's, took 4 1/2 hours--today, 8 hours.
Chicago to Denver in 1934? 13 1/2 hours--today, 18 hours. In 1934, you would have taken the Burlington Zephyr, which quite often traveled at over 100 mph. Today, a "high speed train" averages 87 mph.
I rode the rails in Europe back in 1976, over thirty years ago. The trains were clean, fast, convenient, and exceptionally comfortable, with private compartments that could seat six people comfortably, but which more often had only 2-3, in which case it was a simple thing to fold the seats down to make a bed, which, with the rocking of the rails and all, was exceptionally comfortable. Thirty years later, the European trains are not quite as comfortable or private, but they are even faster and more high tech.
If we could get our train system up to where Europe was 30 years ago, that would represent tremendous progress. Hell, if we could get to where we ourselves were 50 years ago, that would be great progress.