As incredible as it sounds, Republican presidents, along with their Republican Congresses, have initiated some of the biggest public works projects in American history. Theodore Roosevelt single-mindedly pursued the construction of the Panama Canal and Calvin Coolidge signed the legislation to build what became known as the Hoover Dam. Democratic presidents continued and expanded on these accomplishments, as when FDR followed up on the Hoover Dam and built many others, including the TVA system. During his administration, the first ideas and plans for a national highway system were developed, which that great socialist Dwight David Eisenhower then pushed through in 1956.
Today there is a crying need for an interstate high-speed rail system. In 1954, only $175 million had been allocated to a national road system, clearly too little to do the job. In 1956, $25 billion was allocated for a system that wound up costing $425 billion in 2006 dollars. In the last couple of years, the Obama administration has committed $8 billion to high-speed rail, mostly for small, unconnected segments. The US High-Speed Rail Association estimates that in order to build a functional, 17,000 mile system (the Interstate Highway System is currently 48,000 miles), it would cost about $600 billion over 20 years. The New York Times recently ran an article comparing a high-speed rail network to the Interstate Highway System.
But what would motivate the construction of such a system? By the 1950s, the Big 3 car makers were reputedly saying things like "what's good for General Motors is good for the country," and that included a national road system. The suburban boom, with critical help from the federal and local governments, was in full swing, and with it, the shift from trains to cars as the main passenger vehicle. As a young lieutenant, Eisenhower had participated in the first transcontinental truck convoy. Ike then witnessed the autobahns that Germany built at the end of World War II. Even with a political environment that had barely emerged from the McCarthy-ite hysteria over communism, the political will existed to construct one of civilization's most ambitious examples of public construction.
The reasons for focusing on high-speed rail are oil, oil, and also, oil, in that order. Professor Michael T. Klare has done a good job of explaining all three. First, the supply of cheap oil is leveling off, and will probably start to decline in the near future. This is known as the "peak oil" argument. After all, the Earth does not have infinite resources, and the oil supply certainly is not infinite. While the rise in the price of oil in the summer of 2008 was probably in part the result of financial manipulation, it was mostly caused by demand overrunning supply. It was a grim reminder that even short-term fluctuations in the price of oil can have colossal economic impacts.
Second, the coming scarcity of oil will lead to major conflicts among nations, including the possibility of more wars. The Iraq War may have been a small-scale demonstration. As oil exporters use more and more of their oil for their own population and their ability to pump oil declines, the amount of exported oil will decline even quicker than the supply of oil in total. Even without wars, much of American foreign policy and part of its huge military burden is attributable to the warping effect of our dependence on oil.
Third, as we saw this summer, oil has devastating environmental effects. A Gulf oil spill equivalent takes place every year in the Nigerian delta, which according to some estimates is rich in oil. The exploitation of oil has regularly been destroying ecosystems for decades now. Even more ominously, burning oil accounts for almost as much greenhouse gas emissions as coal, about 18% of total global greenhouse gases.
For all of these reasons, we need to shift the transportation system from a 99% dependence on oil to at least a 90% dependence on electricity. Electricity can be generated in a renewable, pollution-free manner, as I have argued previously. The US can supply all of its own electricity, forever.
It took from the beginning of the 20th century to after World War II to switch from electricity and coal to petroleum, so it will take decades to switch back to electricity. So the sooner we start, the better. The powers-that-be in 1900 were streetcar operators and railroads; now the oil companies and car companies, plus suburban real estate interests, have an even larger voice in government. They will surely fund groups that claim that the government should stay out of what it was once involved in: spending the equivalent of trillions of dollars to transform the transportation system and urban structure. It will take an educated public, hopefully worried about the long-term future, to push the government to spend trillions in moving to a system based on electric trains.
Trains are the best way to use electricity for a transportation vehicle. This is because trains can use an overhead electrical wiring system (or in the case of subways and some light rail, an underground one). That is, they can obtain their energy from outside the vehicle. They don't have to drag around their energy in a fuel tank. They can also tap into the continental electrical grid, which can be fed by many different sources.
According to Chris Steiner in his book "$20 Per Gallon", at $8 per gallon airline flights under 350 miles will no longer be profitable, and at $12 per gallon flights under 500 miles won't be either. Europe, China, and Japan are feverishly working to create major high-speed rail routes over just these lengths with trains that run at least 200 mph.
However, in order to move away from oil, we will also have to move most freight with trains instead of long-haul trucks. The Millennium Institute estimates that transferring freight to electric rail, including at least part of a passenger rail system, would cost between $250 and 500 billion. But the bigger problem would be that much of the commercial infrastructure of the country, including the big box stores like WalMart and hundreds of suburban malls, would probably have to relocate to more dense city regions in order to take advantage of an electric rail system.
Which brings us to the biggest problem of all: replacing oil-dependent cars. Robert Bryce and Kris De Decker argue that electric cars have always been over-hyped and that there is no reason to think that they will ever replace the large, high-speed, long-distance automobiles that we have now. So let's assume that they are right and that electric cars will always be slow, say with a maximum speed of 30 mph, fairly small, and with a range of about 50 miles. As the City of New York is now informing its residents, that speed would actually decrease the likelihood of death from accidents to only 20% -- and driving at 20 mph has even more beneficial effects.
But this would only be practical if three very far-reaching changes were made. First, most people, even in suburbs, would have to live about 10 miles away from a town center. Second, those town centers would have to be tied together and linked to a city center by an extensive and rider-friendly electric train system. Third, the city centers would have to incorporate buildings at a high density and transit systems large enough to avoid the need to use nonelectric cars.
There is another good reason to build these systems besides not using oil: if the high-speed trains and subways and electric cars and high-rise buildings were built using goods manufactured in the U.S., then the manufacturing economy of the U.S. could recover, and with it, the middle class and the long-term prosperity of the country.
If the Republican Party can make big changes, why not the Democratic Party?
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the City University of New York.