Monday, August 31, 2009

Rethinking America's Infrastructure

On NPR today, several commentators discussed the impact of ~$8 billion in stimulus funds that is targeted for high-speed rail. Being NPR, they had to include at least one critic, who in this case questioned whether we could afford such a high cost, and that even this huge amount was only a small fraction of what it would take to build a national high-speed rail network.

While I don't doubt a national high-speed rail network would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, I do wonder how we can think of this as expensive. Aside from the obvious comparison to the $700 Billion we just spent to bail out the financial system, I think a more significant comparison is to the hundreds of billions currently spent by federal and state governments annually just to maintain the existing road network. And we must consider that the existing road network is soon going to require a tremendous overhaul to stay viable. Just tonight the History Channel showed "The Crumbling of America" which examined the poor state of America's infrastructure, including our highway system. Many of our major highways were built to last 50 years, and are now well into their 40's and being used more heavily than designers 50 years ago probably would have anticipated.

One way or another, America will have to spend trillions of dollars over the next decade or so if we want our nation to continue to have a viable transportation system in the 21st century. We need to be seriously consider whether we want to pour this kind of money into just maintaining the status quo, or do we want to have the kind of vision our predecessors did 50-100 years ago when building the transportation network we have enjoyed for so long.

The sad part is I hear nothing being seriously discussed that is at all bold or ambitious. High-speed rail would be nice, but the projects currently being looked at are often no more technically advanced than what was being used nearly 100 years ago in this country. Even the "ambitious" proposals do not represent any sort of advance over the technologies currently in use in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Several years ago I ran across a plan for something called a dual-mode system. While I disagree with many aspects of the proposal, it is certainly interesting and has many great ideas. Why aren't revolutionary, forward-thinking proposals being considered as we face the end of an era in American transportation infrastructure? Why does it seem the only two choices we have are to maintain an oil-dependent status quo (cars & planes) that is bad for the environment, accident-prone, reliant on hostile regimes and anti-democracy powers, and offers little chance for efficiency and safety improvements; or to turn to rail at a technological state that we should have moved beyond decades ago?

When did America become a land of such small thinkers?


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