Monday, April 20, 2009
Obama's rail line plan
Last Thursday, President Obama unveiled a plan to develop, as part of the stimulus package, high-speed passenger rail lines in various parts of the country.
I applaud the president's acknowledgment that we must rethink our mass transit system. The wasteful and unsustainable Happy Motoring paradigm that has been with us since the 1950s will not be economically feasible in the very near future, given that, in the long term, oil prices are not going anywhere but up. And the passenger airline network, a lavish and environmentally-destructive extravagance, is slowly but surely dying of the twin cancers of rising fuel prices and shrinking business and family travel budgets.
Certainly, the development of an efficient, safe, and convenient transportation system is needed. So, while I applaud the initiative, generally and in concept, there are a few aspects of the plan that give me pause.
First of all, why "high-speed?" We already have a (neglected) rail system in this country that used to be the envy of the world. The tracks are already laid and the routes established. Wouldn't it be a smarter investment to improve what is already there? Make it safe and efficient?
Is the "high-speed" aspect intended to broaden the appeal of the project in the eyes of the American public? That is, have Americans become so insufferably full of our own sense of entitlement that the president fears we might turn our noses up at the idea of a regular, old passenger rail system?
If so, I think President Obama is underestimating the American public. God knows it is easy to justify that line of thinking, especially in light of the 2000 and 2004 elections. But things have changed. Americans, I believe, are looking at the world in the cold light of day and realizing that the live-for-today orgy is over.
Also, if we want to get serious about developing a functional passenger rail system, a mere $8 billion (which is the amount President Obama has pegged for the initiative) is but a drop in the proverbial bucket. Even if we were to simply revamp and improve our existing rail lines a measly $8 billion doesn't seem likely to cover much beyond the initial purchase of some plans and equipment. Especially when one considers that the Department of Agriculture spends some $20 billion dollars on something called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (I am not denigrating that or any other program... I'm merely trying to point out that $8 billion isn't a lot of dough, in terms of the federal budget.)
On the whole, though, I think this is a good step toward reinforcing the growing public realization that we can never go back to the days of Happy Motoring, of American extravagance, of devil-be-damned consumption.
One of the proposed rail lines would run from Eugene, Oregon north to Vancouver, British Columbia and all the lines would be connected by existing passenger rail lines. So, if it all comes to fruition, it might someday be possible to hop on a train and ride the rails all around the continent: an American version of the Eurail system. For a traveler like me, that sounds like heaven.
If everything works out just right, the rail system might be getting underway just about the time I retire. I can envision a great retirement adventure: hopping on the train in Portland, swinging up to Vancouver, heading east to the Great Lakes, across to Philadelphia, thence to Washington, DC, down through Dixie, back across the Great Plains and then homeward.
See the whole continent without having to drive! Doesn't that sound fantastic? But, at this point, it's just a dream.