Loss of High-speed Rail Funding is a Loss for America

Apr 25, 2011David B. Woolner

We're on the wrong track of forgetting our history of putting people to work building the infrastructure we need.

In the recent battle between the White House and Congress over the 2011 budget, one of the major casualties was high-speed rail. This is another sad indication of the lack of vision emanating from Washington. Not only will this cost thousands of good paying and highly skilled jobs, it also represents another step back in the need for the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our energy consumption.

High-speed rail has also been in the news of late because of Florida Governor Rick Scott's decision to turn down funds that were already appropriated to build the first line between Tampa and Orlando. Taking his cue from the deficit hawks and proponents of limited government, Governor Scot claimed the plan would be too costly for Florida's state government -- a claim that has been disputed by a number of economists -- and rejected the federal dollars, in spite of the strong support from a significant portion of Florida's business community. Similar rejections of federal dollars for rail projects have come from the newly elected republican Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who together have turned away over $1.2 billion in federals funding for improvements in the nation's rail system, including a high-speed line between Madison and Milwaukee.

All three governors have cited economic reasons for their refusal to accept these funds, but as Stephen Harrod, Assistant Professor of Operations Management at Dayton University notes, the real reasons more likely stem from a deep-seated ideological and cultural bias against the very idea of high-speed rail among the American right. In a recent article on the subject, Professor Harrod observes that much of the conservative opposition to high-speed rail can be linked to the widespread and erroneous notion that the construction of such a system would lead the United States into "European socialism." As such, one of the rallying cries of Tea Party advocates is "Stop the Train." These same individuals are uncomfortable with the urban nature of rail travel, and because the establishment of a rail system requires a good deal of centralized planning it must, by its very nature, be "socialistic."

These arguments ignore the fact that the vast majority of European rail companies operate on a commercial basis. They also ignore the enormous contribution the federal government has made and continues to make in the construction of our nation's highways, best exemplified by the creation of the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not to mention federal support for the nation's air travel and the all important but long forgotten federal subsidies for the construction of the much celebrated transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century.

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In light of this, Professor Harrod says the tax-saving arguments used by Governor Scott and others ring hollow, as each of these governors is perfectly happy to accept federal dollars in support of their state's highway system. Hence, they are not opposed to government funding of transportation, they are opposed to government funding of rail transportation.

The popular view, of course, is that our nation's highways, including the vast network of rural roads, are paid for by fuel taxes equally shared by all. But as Professor Harrod points out, the vast majority of revenue collected from fuel taxes comes from the urban population, which means that most rural roads in America, which are often built as a spur to local economic development, are in effect subsidized by the federal government.

In FDR's day, similar arguments were used to try to bring an end to such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which used federal funds issued to localities to employ millions of Americans in a massive effort to build the nation's economic infrastructure. Critics charged that the WPA was simply engaged in a massive "make work" effort and many conservatives regarded it as major step towards socialism. This perception -- though wildly inaccurate -- remains with us to this day. The goal of the WPA was to get people off relief and into productive employment, not only to provide them with the income needed to help support their families, but also to maintain the skills of the nation's workforce and invest in the future expansion of the economy. As such, each project was carefully screened to ensure all facets of the labor needed to complete the work, from the design and engineering work down to the actual construction, came from the ranks of the unemployed. Moreover, many of the improvements made by the WPA -- including over 570,000 miles of rural roads, roughly 100,000 bridges, tens of thousands of schools, and hundreds of airports -- are with us still.

Thanks to this deep-seated bias against the culture of rail travel and the centralized planning required for the construction of an efficient high-speed rail system, the United States has once again fallen behind our European and Asian counterparts. Worse still, we risk losing the opportunity to employ the thousands of engineers, architects, machinists and other highly skilled workers required to build such a system. Most Americans still operate under the erroneous assumption that such federal programs as the New Deal's WPA or Interstate Highway System only involved the employment of low skilled and poorly paid labor. In doing so, we have turned away from our own legacy and have chosen to forget that the construction of our nation's economic infrastructure did not just happen by accident. It took planning, vision, a highly skilled work force, and a good deal of federal support.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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