Public transportation systems come at a high price


Last weekend the New York Times reported on efforts to develop a fast train from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  Being a rider myself—I am writing this on the Cascades run south—and knowing how appealing European trains are and how outdated, inefficient, and unreliable North American trains are, I read the article with a sinking feeling. The California route’s first section, dubbed by critics “the train to nowhere” because it runs from Bakersfield to Borden in the central valley, will be a political battlefield for at least a decade. 


Animation of Bakersfield high speed rail courtesy California High Speed Rail Authority.

Admittedly this is a dark view, but it stems less from cynicism than historical perspective. America has seen many convulsive transportation revolutions. Canals, railroads, highways, and airports were all contested, and each was a mixture of wisdom and folly similar to now. Roads in the early republic were awful. Economic activity was constrained to areas close to navigable streams or towns. Fifteen land miles away was beyond the market.  This inspired efforts to create canals that extended and captured production. As environmental historian Christopher Jones notes, even these earliest works were heavily subsidized. This was equally true of later technological innovations, including the epic graft accompanying transcontinental railways and the grubbier scandals dogging highway construction. Public money has always underwritten American transportation development, and audits reveal the vast majority—the Erie Canal a conspicuous exception—did not pay for themselves. Thus fiscal conservatives have a point when critiquing money thrown at high-speed rail.  It is an obtuse, often insincere point, but it is valid.

Unfortunately, the math gets messier when we expand the tally. The toll on laborers was incalculable. No one knows just how many people were killed or incapacitated digging ditches, laying rails, and paving roads, but the number would no doubt cause queasiness. Many understand transportation’s role in the dispossession of native peoples. Few contemplate reparations. Every technology irrevocably altered nature.  Canals lured invasive species. Trains ignited forests. Roads buried waterways. Cars and planes polluted lungs.  Each route did open opportunities, albeit more slowly than boosters promised, but the costs went unacknowledged: communities in decline when lines passed them by, shrinking agricultural prosperity as production expanded, and widespread disaffection as captains of industry and corporations charged what the traffic would bear. Now most Americans travel these paths without a second thought to the costs.

One reason I despise current politics is its dishonest discourse. Every opportunity has a cost and every cost an opportunity. Almost no one admits this consistently. The only statement from the NYT piece I can fully embrace is by Roelof van Ark, chief executive of the California High-Speed Authority, who said “It’s not about today; it’s about the future.” That is the sole stable truth in debates about transportation development. I like trains. I can reduce my carbon footprint and work while commuting. I am persuaded that a network of modern rail routes will be better for nature and, as Janet Pack argued two decades ago, public transit is good for society. That said, fast trains are not panaceas, balance sheets are not unambiguous, and my preference is not without costs. In our world, however, such an admission marks me as a loser. While many politicians like full cost accounting when they want to complicate an opponents’ agenda, none want critical light cast on their own cause. What I most wish—other than it did not take sixteen hours to travel back and forth between Portland and Vancouver, and will Amtrak please turn on the Wifi—is that we have an honest discussion about all the opportunities and costs of all our transportation options.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history department at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, which won the National Outdoor Book Award, and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.

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