Passenger rail critic ignores massive autombile subsidy

unionstation

A letter to the editor in Sunday’s Savannah Morning News points out some classic flaws in the way we think about transportation. The writer takes aim at President Obama’s ideas for high speed rail with this comment:

“High-speed rail” suffers from the same problems that afflict “fight rail” and most any other sort of “rail.” The construction costs just can’t be recovered by the revenues generated. If there was money to be made in “high-speed rail,” private enterprise would be all over it. They aren’t. Government thinks this is a good idea, but government isn’t required to make a profit.

Exactly. The construction costs of the interstate highway system have been recovered and that’s why, wait, what?

The thought of tax dollars supporting passenger rail service offends our capitalist sensibilities, yet we are somehow able to ignore the colossal federal subsidy that makes driving artificially cheap. You see, the most ardent free marketeers among us become instant socialists when it comes to cars. Just add gasoline! At least fuel taxes pay for all those roads, bridges and parking garages, right? Not hardly.

There’s another force at work, too. As if suffering from some sort of collective memory loss, Americans have grown to view our country’s sprawling automobile infrastructure as something that “came with the place.” Maybe all those interstate lanes were originally landing strips used by our ancient alien ancestors. Maybe those interchanges began as paths worn by wandering mastodons. Whatever the case, cars and the gargantuan public works projects deployed to support them can seem like they’ve always been with us. This blinds us to how they came to be, how much they cost and what’s been lost in the process.

For what it’s worth, I tend to side with Kunstler when it comes to this issue. Never mind high speed rail, we really ought to be concerning ourselves with just plain rail, he says. Still, our letter writer contends that rail — high speed or original recipe — is not compatible with Savannah:

“High-speed rail” works where the central business district surrounds the train station. A few U.S. cities are still organized this way, but not Savannah.

It’s true that Savannah is no longer organized in this way. Sadly, the centrally located Union Station, constructed by a private enterprise called the The Union Station Company, was sacrificed in the early 1960s to build a project that’s never made a dime in revenue. But then again, the government wasn’t required to make a profit when the train station was demolished to make way for I-16.

This entry was posted in Economics, Government, Transportation on by .

About John Bennett

Transportation, land use, local farming and green building are all potential topics for Sustainable Savannah. The goal is to aggregate content about local events and projects, so there will be a central place to review everything that’s happening. The site is aimed at encouraging collaboration and information sharing between groups and individuals currently engaged in sustainability efforts. The site can also provide a snapshot of Savannah for green-minded people who are considering visiting or moving to the area.

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