“The time is long past due for a national transportation vision that recognizes the spatial concentration of our economic life and  responds accordingly. It requires an extreme makeover, with a fundamentally new approach to almost every aspect of national  policy: how we allocate funding; how we set priorities; how we apportion responsibilities; how we engage the private sector;  how we price the system; how we connect transportation to other policies; how we structure the national government; and how  we move from pork-driven politics to empirically grounded policy.

“Fortunately, the time is ripe for such systemic reform.  From genuine concern about the condition and quality of our existing   infrastructure, to difficulties and limited choices in moving people and goods, to major national problems like climate change,  foreign energy dependence, and strained household budgets, there is growing recognition that left unchecked these challenges  threaten not only the quality of life in our country but also the competitiveness of our nation.” [1]

Those words were written two years ago, but they carry the same urgency and necessity today. No subject as complex as rebuilding our infrastructure and the role public transportation will play can lend itself to resolution within the confines of a blog post or two. But what can be discussed is the framework for deciding whether that revitalization, sound national directives, and the necessary levels of investment are worth pursuing as an answer (in part) to the challenges Peak Oil will pose. If you’ve read any of my posts to date, my affirmative answer will not come as a great surprise.

Greater investment in public transportation is not a panacea; no solution is. Trade-offs are inevitable given the scope and magnitude of what we need to create some legitimate semblance of economic growth and prosperity again (and I am convinced that those terms will be defined differently when “recovery” is in full swing. The good old days will remain the good old days.). But as has become a strategy all too often in most essential public and political dialogues since President Obama’s election and his bold attempts to define a new vision for American strength and prosperity, too many strive to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

The government continues to be the Right’s great bogeyman, except of course for things they like. They will need to figure out soon that we will not and cannot go back to how things were. There is no more “business as usual,” and the sooner they understand, the sooner they can participate in an American re-birth that will remain our best hope for prosperity. The rank hypocrisy and outright lies they work so diligently to perpetuate is a strategy that can only harm Americans long-term.

“We can compete, and the Obama administration wants us to compete, but it would take considerable infrastructure  investment and a functioning legislative process….government spending has suddenly become a bad thing, while  mandatory supermajorities have suddenly become good things….

“It’s easier to stick our heads in the sand and count on tax cuts as the solution to every problem, but it’s reasonable to think just  about every policy dispute on the American landscape can, and probably should, be reframed to answer the question: how does  this position the United States for global competition in the 21st century?” [2]

Discussing investment in high-speed rail and related energy issues recently, the President pointed out that “Other countries aren’t waiting. They want those jobs. China wants those jobs. Germany wants those jobs. They are going after them hard, making the investments required.” (Tom Whipple recently pointed out, however, that some of China’s massive infrastructure investments seem destined to be of decidedly short term benefit.  Whipple questioned spending “trillions on 11,000 miles of ultra high-speed passenger lines that will whisk a relatively few passengers between cities at unprecedented speeds and costs,” and even more for tens of thousands of additional roadway miles of similar dubious merit. [3])

In the next five years, China’s high-speed rail plans call for them to lay down more high-speed tracks than will the rest of the world in total (and let’s keep in mind that they continue to quietly position themselves for access to a lot of future oil). While that may only be serving a short-term purpose now, if their economy does grow as they envision, they will be competitively positioned well ahead of us in the decades to come by virtue of these types of investments—including the efforts they expend for clean energy. There are no magic pills that will keep us competing without similar investments and strategies.

There’s no doubt that federal investment in necessary high-speed rail and other transit systems would act as a positive and substantial economic stimulus for the nation and the job market. Let’s not forget that electric rail usage also decreases the amount of foreign oil we’re obliged to use—and pay for, and benefits our environment.

Enough studies have demonstrated that rail investment has a greater economic effect than do funds spent on highways, and it creates nearly twice as many jobs. The truth is, Peak Oil is going to impose severe limitations on the availability of oil and gas for the modes of transportation we now continue to take for granted. Highway funding may soon seem to be an insane choice for devoting limited resources. We cannot afford to be caught short when those limitations come into play.

Almost all economists of any repute acknowledge that the President’s stimulus plan prevented us from falling over an economic cliff. But let’s not assume we’ve scrambled back safely to the top just yet. States are desperate for funds and opportunities to employ their citizens. In this recession, with so many adversely affected for so long, those citizens will have different needs once recovery (however that may be defined) is eventually on solid footing. Having automobiles at their disposal may fall lower on their list of priorities, but that won’t obviate a great need to remain mobile. We’ll just have to learn to do so more efficiently and economically. Transportation likewise will not and cannot return to “business as usual.” We need to understand that now.

Transportation-related expenditures are second only to housing costs for most Americans, and in this economic climate, we simply cannot afford to continue on as is. Significant investment in alternative forms of energy—to the extent that can help over time—and in other forms of public transportation have to play a major role in any national strategic vision.

We also cannot discount the impact and influence of rail development on local economies as well. Providing hubs of any size invariably lead to business expansion and development surrounding rail stations. Investments in mass transit are proven job-makers, and that leads to better overall economic well-being.

As I have been urging all along, we’re all in this together, and our elected leaders and the business community will have to work even more closely to develop, define, refine, and implement strategies for economic revival than ever before. The problems we now face, and the problems that will confront us in the face of Peak Oil necessitate national strategies (no doubt to the Right’s great dismay.) All the hoping and praying won’t bring us back to the place we once knew as “business as usual.” The rules of engagement are different, and winning will require vastly different approaches than ever before. (And keep in mind that decreased driving and greater fuel efficiencies in our stable of vehicles means less tax revenues to repair our roads and bridges. Changes have to be made.)

Opportunities abound. Are we smart enough to seize them, or are we really better off with sniping over idiotic points of questionable merit?

Despite the diligent efforts of those for whom facts and clear evidence remain at best signs of some vast, nefarious conspiracy designed to render us Socialist Martians or whatever nonsense is being spouted, we have legitimate energy constraints on the horizon and equally serious environmental concerns to deal with. We all need to dive in and work together to fashion better plans that lead to a better and more prosperous future. “Tax cuts” aren’t it, and inane diatribes about socialist/Marxist/Nazi plots and wondering if our President is really an earth-born citizen simply derail us from what needs to be done.

We have a glaring need for much greater investment in our existing infrastructure and transportation systems—ones that will carry us through this new century. The benefits are immense, and the opportunities are already there.

Do we have the vision and courage to do the right thing?

Next: A Few More Thoughts About Transportation


[1] A Bridge to Somewhere: RETHINKING AMERICAN TRANSPORTATION FOR THE 21st CENTURY; Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, by Robert Puentes (p.11)
[2] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2010_02/022394.php; February 13, 2010; TRAINS ON DIFFERENT TRACKS by Steve Benen
[3] http://www.energybulletin.net/node/51815; March 3, 2010; The Peak Oil Crisis: China’s Year of the Tiger by Tom Whipple