Monday, June 27, 2011

My Alternatives to High-Speed Rail

After a great deal of research on the matter, I have been an outspoken critic of high-speed rail. The binary simplicity of the major political parties and our media outlets soon reduce this debate to a different, larger debate: public vs. private spending. Any nuance? That doesn't make for good two-minute "debates" on cable news.

When people read that I cannot support high-speed rail, one side of the issue assumes I'm against all public projects. In fact, I agree with the American Society of Civil Engineers that we need at least $2.2 trillion (yes, that's with a "T") in short-term investment simply to maintain our existing infrastructure. Building a cool train while bridges are collapsing seems wasteful to me. And the notion we can spend on huge new projects without taking the money from other projects is idealistic.

As a nation, we have limited funds. We must spend money in ways that have the greatest return on investment.

A colleague said I was wanting to move America backwards by not supporting high-speed rail. He wanted my suggestions, so I offered them:

1) Repair our aging, rotting water systems and power grid. These projects represent nearly half of the $2.2 trillion in deferred maintenance our cities and states must perform or we will experience more incredible, preventable disasters. Some cities lose almost half their water to leaks and other system failures. Our power grid is in better shape, but not great shape. Power is wasted because electrons simply travel the lines the moment of power generation. We don't monitor our system well enough to generate, store, and distribute power reliably.

2) Fix and upgrade our roads, tunnels, and bridges. Cars and trucks are not going away; even alternative fuel and high efficiency vehicles will use roads. I used a scooter, 60-80 mpg, for four years. It still needed roads to get from one place to another. Sadly, my ride was a maze of potholes and crumbling concrete. Bad roads damage cars and trucks. They also cause accidents when tires are blown or rocks thrown into windshields. The real warning signs: bridges and tunnels collapsing. But we wait until things fail, even though maintenance is cheaper than replacement.

3) Expand urban transit systems with alternative fuel vehicles and light rail when it is appropriate. Most car trips are short-distance drives, not people going from Los Angeles to Chicago. L.A. and Chicago both have insufficient urban transit systems, like most cities in this county. More people would be served and more pollution reduced with effective urban transit systems.

4) Encourage rail cargo. Rail is much more efficient than trucking. So why do we have so many trucks on the road? Because there are barriers to expanding and repairing rail lines in many places. I've lived in communities that fought rail lines because of noise and perceived risks. Trains are much safer and more efficient per mile than trucks. We need to get beyond the "NIMBY" approach to transit projects. Trains are a good idea, so we should streamline permitting and make it happen. There's no reason we can't also develop safer rail lines and more efficient trains, making trains that much better compared to trucks.

5) Invest in alternative fuel and high-efficiency engine research. The government is the largest consumer of vehicle fuel, in particular the U.S. military branches consume massive quantities of oil and gas. Government has in the past fostered the creation and refinement of technologies for military applications, leading to benefits for all Americans. NASA was and is a military-industrial cooperative producing numerous advancements. DARPA (Dept. of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has also fostered great ideas. Fuel efficiency research would cut long-term military spending, reduce reliance on foreign oil, and lead to discoveries we cannot predict.

Let's think of some other issues, too. Our schools are crumbling, not to mention being outdated for modern technology. Our university systems are raising tuition faster than inflation justifies. I could list dozens of public projects I consider more important at this moment than cool trains. No, we do not have the money for everything. Choose and choose wisely.

After we get our existing systems and infrastructure repaired and improved, then I'll listen to stories of how great high-speed rail will be. In the meantime, I want the potholes fixed.

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