Debate rages over the prospect of high-speed rail transportation in the US. It isn’t happening yet, and many politicians are working hard to make sure it doesn’t. Why? Because it’s SUBSIDIZED by GOVERNMENT. It’s being SHOVED DOWN OUR THROATS by those who want a FREE RIDE on EVERYBODY ELSE’S MONEY!! Just like those leftist socialist Europeans!!
Well, guess what—I contend that all means of travel in this country are subsidized. As a matter of fact, public transit all over the world is subsidized!
Let’s start with airlines. They navigate by GPS, a subsidized system of satellites built originally for military purposes, but now essential to nearly everyone who travels. Aircraft navigation aids dot the landscape all over the country. The entire air traffic control system with its thousands of radars and approach controls and humans staring at radar screens is subsidized; it’s not directly paid for by either airlines or passengers or private non-commercial pilots. Free subsidized weather information is fed into the air traffic system with a degree of detail unknown to the weather clown on your evening TV news broadcast. Here in the San Joaquin Valley to get airline service to a smaller city like Visalia or Merced, the servicing airlines are subsidized up to half a million dollars a year.
Next, highways: The 40,000-plus-mile Interstate Highway System was initiated during the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s after the president was impressed by the defense-enhancing capabilities of Germany’s Autobahn. In Eisenhower’s proposed highway system the overpasses had to be high enough off the roadway to allow a truck carrying a Redstone missile to clear, an essential national defense requirement. Federal subsidies keep the system maintained and expanded even now.
Rail: Amtrak is subsidized, as are the freight railroads. The expensive-to-build tracks were made possible by the government giving the railroads an entire square mile of land along each mile of track in order to entice them to make the huge investment to connect the entire country by rail. Where roads cross railroad tracks, the expense of building and maintenance is subsidized by the city, county or state, not the railroad companies.
Buses: In addition to passenger fares, bus service lines from cities like Fresno and Merced to Yosemite National Park get a subsidy to provide the service. Every city’s streetcars and buses and light rail are subsidized.
(When I was a kid living in Fresno, I could travel anywhere on the bus for a silver dime which is now worth about $2.50. Today a bus ride costs about a dollar even though the city is probably ten times bigger. The subsidy has obviously gone up.)
Cars: We have roads that are paid for by state and local government so we can get around in our cars. Fuel taxes and license and registration fees come nowhere close to covering the amount needed to maintain the roads.
Bicycles: There are subsidized bike lanes along the roads and even off the roads, sometimes getting exclusive use of abandoned railroad rights of way. Bike stands in shopping areas and parks are subsidized, not paid for directly by users.
Pedestrians: We all walk on subsidized sidewalks, and are helped to get across busy intersections by painted pedestrian lanes and subsidized pedestrian traffic signals.
So what’s the big beef about High Speed Rail? Some critics say “Nobody will ride it.” Here in the central valley of California, the Amtrak San Joaquin line is the fifth busiest in the United States. Whenever Karla and I have taken any of the five trains a day to San Francisco it is busy, and between many stops very crowded.
Today I checked the round trip airline price from Fresno to San Francisco. $592 to $612, requiring a plane change and layover in Las Vegas, and taking an average of four to six hours each way. Passengers must get to the airport a couple of hours before the flight. Prepare to have your body examined and don’t take too much stuff or you pay even more for the privilege. If you park your car at the airport there’s additional cost (not cheap!). When you “get to San Francisco” (Burlingame, actually) you’re still a very long way from your destination since airports just don’t fit inside cities. You can take a cab, an “airport limo,” or ride on a subsidized BART train to complete your journey. At extra cost of course.
Today’s Amtrak price from Fresno’s downtown right to the doorstep of the Moscone Center in San Francisco (or the Embarcadero, Union Square, or Fisherman’s Wharf)—$63 round trip ‘cause I’m a geezer and get eleven bucks off the regular adult ticket price. Parking at the Amtrak station is free. The trip time is between four and five hours and I don’t have to change trains, just get on a nice Amtrak bus to cross the Bay Bridge (which is part of the price anyway—and the view is wonderful). While on the train I might choose to sit in a wide comfortable seat at a big table so I can use my computer. There’s an electrical outlet at every row of seats on both sides of the car. Plenty of overhead storage space and a big area on the lower deck for bulkier luggage costs nothing extra. The lounge car has café tables and chairs and a galley that can serve anything from a pastry and a cup of coffee (refills free!) clear up to a whole, pretty good-tasting meal at decent prices. I’ve never encountered a line at the restrooms on a train. (On a plane, it seems the first thing that happens when the seat belt light goes off is a big rush for the restrooms, probably because passengers have been jammed bolt-upright in narrow no-legroom ten-across seats for an hour or more.) Walking to the lounge is only a dream on a plane. Walking around on a plane is itself regarded as suspicious behavior. Taking a short- to medium-distance flight is generally not a desirable experience when compared to a train, especially when you feel how much lighter your wallet is.
Oh, and one more thing you can do on a train but not on a plane—if there’s a shrieking kid in the seat behind you, you can simply pluck your destination tag from the overhead clip and move to a whole ’nother rail car!
The high-speed train is expected to go 220 miles per hour. Amtrak zips along now at 85. Plans call for the tracks through Fresno to follow an existing railroad right-of-way but with a major difference—they’ll be 60 feet in the air for several miles. That’s as close as it gets to flying.
Compared to airplanes, electric-powered trains produce 30 to 60 percent less carbon emissions, depending on source of fuel. (If powered by love, good intentions and solar/wind/geothermal/cosmic pixie dust, it’s 100% less!)
There are recent proposals that the two federal mortgage agencies, Fannie May and Freddie Mac be shut down. They are the biggest holders of 30-year fixed-rate (subsidized) mortgages. Banks hate 30-year mortgages and loathe fixed rates. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that if fixed-rate-30s go away it will simply be too expensive to live in the city unless you’re wealthy (or homeless). How will middle-class expatriate citizens commute to work on the Bay Area’s already-jammed-beyond-capacity transportation systems? With high-speed rail, their options increase exponentially.
One valley congressman is suggesting that the federal money proposed for high speed rail be allocated instead to upgrading State Route 99 through the San Joaquin Valley. He would like to see it become Interstate 99. (Fresno is the nation’s largest city not served by an Interstate highway.) He is facing at least two big expensive problems: 99’s shoulders are too narrow, and the majority of the overpasses are too low to meet Interstate standards.
Toughest of all—he’s gotta make room for those (subsidized) Redstone missiles.
Subsidization disclosure: This blog doesn’t cost me a cent. It is subsidized by Google.