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As Long as We Remember...

February 5, 2009

An Overdue Alternative

Tony Soltero

With our economy in dire straits, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill to stave off a massive depression. There are many items in this bill to like – and some not to like, but there is one item that should be taking precedence over all others, and it's nowhere near being adequately addressed in this proposal, whatever shape it eventually takes.


Anybody who's suffered through an I-270 traffic jam during rush hour, or enjoyed sitting for a half hour in front of the Costco on a Friday afternoon, is acutely aware that our nation's infrastructure has been underfunded and neglected far too long. Anyone who's shelled out money for new rims after plunging into a pothole knows that many of our roads are in terrible shape. And the transportation alternatives for those who cannot afford their own automobiles (or simply prefer not to) are slim – mass transit is barely adequate in DC, and almost nonexistent in Frederick.


Most of the infrastructure money in the stimulus bill is going to roads and highways. That's okay as far as it goes, and highway maintenance and construction will create a good number of jobs (Republican misdirection to the contrary notwithstanding); but it doesn't address the more long-term problem of updating our transportation grid in the face of dwindling fossil-fuel supplies. Simply put, all the Interstates in the world aren't going to be worth much if gas soars to six dollars a gallon – and the oil supply isn't getting any more bountiful.


Without an infrastructure, there is no economy. As recently as a quarter-century ago there was no high-speed, limited-access highway in Maryland west of Hancock, which left Cumberland and many of its surrounding areas out of much of the state's prosperity. Goods can't find their markets without adequate transportation. So any investment in infrastructure pays for itself several times over – it is the lubricant of the free market.


So, what would be a good investment, besides highways?


Well, as vast as our country is, there's a huge potential role for high-speed rail. Europe and Japan have massive high-speed rail networks that serve as a convenient alternative to sitting in traffic, or cooling one's heels in an airport lounge. Traveling by train in Europe is a perfectly mainstream, normal thing to do. Given the long-term trends in the price of gas and Americans' predilections for long-distance travel, high-speed rail offers an energy-efficient, relatively inexpensive way to get from point A to point B.


So gas is relatively cheap today, you say? Well, all the more reason to build a few more railroads. Then the network will be fully in place when gasoline once again begins to suck the life out of our wallets again – as we all know it will.


And the list of new jobs that will be created as a result of high-speed rail investment is not limited to railroad workers. Energy specialists, scientists, and researchers all stand to benefit from the expanded employment opportunities as we search for the most energy-efficient solutions possible. It's a win-win all around.


The Interstate Highway System, launched by President Dwight David Eisenhower in 1956, is the most successful public works project of all time. In addition to the employment it generated, it set in place a transportation grid that was the envy of the world and fueled American prosperity for decades. There is still a role for cars and trucks in our economy, but it is time to launch a similar initiative oriented around high-speed rail.


Because – when we get that built – we'll be able to thumb our noses at Hugo Chavez and the Saudi royal family, once and for all.


Let's do it. If we can throw a trillion dollars at Wall Street for destroying our economy, we can invest a few hundred billion on infrastructure to rebuild it.


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