I still haven't forgiven Tom Friedman for his continued cheerleading of the Iraq War. But every once in a while he strolls back into reality and today's column is no exception. In it, he argues that the primary concern in most Americans' minds is the desire for "nation-building" here in the USA - a sense that our country has fallen behind the rest of the world, teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. The sorry state of our rail transportation figures into his thinking:
If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.
That's a stunning statement. The US "won" World War II but 60 years later, the rest of the world is passing us by while we sit here stuck with a 1940s vision of the world and of our country. It was in the late 1940s when America's rail network began to decline and over the next two decades it collapsed, its loss lamented by few. Americans deluded themselves into thinking that their postwar prosperity was endless, especially the cheap oil and cheap cars that went along with it. We invested hundreds of billions of dollars in freeways while Germany, France, and Japan invested tens of billions in rail.
The 1970s should have served as a wakeup call, but Reagan came along and told Americans that if you didn't admit there were problems, then there would be no problems. Ignorance was bliss. Cheap oil returned, if only for a short while, and the initial investments in rail made during the '70s were either scaled back or dramatically limited. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Americans began to ironically repeat its fate - hardening into a Brezhnev-like denial of the need to change the way things were done, convinced that the easy global dominance of a society built on cheap oil would last forever.
Here in 2008 it is impossible to continue that charade. 8 years of relentless gas price hikes have proved once and for all that the era of cheap oil is over. And the stagnant economy shows that the era of prosperity that accompanied that cheap oil is vanishing too - unless we accept reality and admit the need to change. Automobiles and roads will continue to exist, but it is time we stopped making them the center of our transportation network. Rail, as Barack Obama explained, is a necessary component of our country's future.
So why do we lack the will to build HSR even as it booms around the world, as Agence-France Press asks?
Amtrak says lack of political will -- as well as Americans' fierce devotion to privately held land -- could doom such projects.
"Private property is sacred in the United States and it's very difficult to impose eminent domain to acquire property to build highways and high-speed rail," Black told AFP.
"And if you don't have the political will, it's a moot point."...
This year the US Department of Transportation set aside 30 million dollars in matching federal funds for state or local rail projects. By comparison the government budgeted 39.4 billion dollars in federal aid for the highway system.
I would argue that we have political will in the US - the will to cling to obsolete assumptions of how our transportation system can work even in the face of mounting evidence that our priorities must change. The critics of HSR never provide an alternative to our dependence on expensive oil - they deny that anything has changed. To them it is forever 1970. They'll freak out about $10 billion for HSR but never acknowledge the far larger costs of doing nothing.
California can change that. California can provide the political will and the leadership that this country so desperately needs. If we approve the $10 billion HSR bond this November we will show Americans that we really can tackle the challenges of the 21st century, instead of pretending that the 20th century never ended.