Kirk Landers, Editor Emeritus

Kirk Untitled 11High-speed Rail and Us

By Kirk Landers,

An industry pundit recently took the Obama Administration to task for not allowing the state of Wisconsin to use its grant for high-speed rail development to improve the state’s roads.

Wisconsin was one of several states that won Stimulus grants for high-speed rail during the gubernatorial administrations of Democrats or moderate Republicans, then elected conservative governors in 2010 who returned the grants with great fanfare, pronouncing high-speed rail a fiscal folly and federal programs the work of the devil.

Apparently, the Wisconsin governor was willing to take the filthy federal lucre, but only on his terms.

Why, I wonder, should Wisconsin get high-speed rail money for its roads? Its contribution to the federal coffers is substantially less than, say, California’s or Texas’. And if we’re not going to spend the money on high-speed rail, why spend it on Wisconsin roads? Why not spend it on deficit reduction in my home state of Illinois, or to buy candy bars and ice cream for kids in your state on the 4th of July?

Rhetorical grandstanding aside, there’s no reason to spend that money on something else. It is borrowed money and even if you are not yet blindly panicked by the country’s annual deficits, you probably would concede that they are a problem and maybe Wisconsin drivers should pay for Wisconsin roads and Illinois taxpayers should resolve Illinois’ debts and you can decide whether or not to buy candy bars and ice cream for the kids in your state on the 4th of July.

While the blogger who wanted to give your money and mine to Wisconsin was simply engaging in partisan politics, the high-speed rail question is one of great significance to the road industry.

I’m not smart enough to know if high-speed rail is feasible — and neither are you, and neither are the legions of critics who have taken aim at the program. What I know for certain is that high-speed rail is what we used to call in the country a “mega-project” — like the Interstate Highway System, Boston’s “Big Dig,” the Hoover Dam and the transcontinental railroad, to name a few. What I also know for certain is that mega-projects are no longer something Americans have the courage to pursue, and high-speed rail is the latest example of that.

Mega-projects aren’t about money. They are about vision and optimism. All of today’s fiscal condemnations of high-speed rail were voiced six decades ago when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was trying to launch the Interstate Highway System. The costs of the system were just as grand as high-speed rail and the benefits were not at all apparent. No one, not a single person in that debate, could possibly have predicted the profound effect those unbuilt highways would have on the American economy, our international competitiveness and our culture. But post-World War II America was a place of optimism and can-do spirit, and eventually Eisenhower was able to pass an Interstate highway act — flawed and underfunded, to be sure, but it got us in the game.

Today’s America can’t get past the cost part of a mega-project, and we are doomed to be a lesser nation for it. Quick, what do you know about Boston’s Big Dig? Breathtaking cost overruns, right? It reinvented a major city, created billions of dollars of new real estate, and enhanced the value of existing real estate for decades, perhaps centuries. It will pay for itself many times over in the years to come.

This is directly related to America’s inability to maintain and improve its roads. We the people — and the people we elect to office — equate roads with costs, but not with opportunity. And so this thing that made us great, this highway system, languishes.