Smile Politely

More about trains, the plains, Spain, and rain

It looks like that dreamy 45-minute train ride from CU to Chicago is still in the dream stage.  President Obama recently announced $1.23 billion in stimulus money going to Illinois to build a “higher” speed rail system between Chicago and St. Louis via Bloomington.

Champaign city councilman Tom Bruno said we’ll get the high-speed line through Champaign, eventually. He’s sure of it. I’m not, although I think it would be one of the most effective feasible local economic development actions we could take. Or it would be feasible if we, the nation, weren’t so pathetically stuck.

Much of the stimulus grant is to improve existing rail lines. The Illinois cut aims to make it possible for trains to reach 110 mph speeds, a far cry from the 200-plus mph reached by trains in other countries. Amtrak’s current maximum operating speed is 79 mph.

It seems so America these days: tepid, feeble, lagging. The contrast with Spain is striking. Not to say Spain is some paradise; it’s facing serious financial problems (in large measure due to their housing bubble, similar to Florida’s and California’s) and deep cuts are coming, but not, unlike here, to education and research and development.

Think of the image you’ve had of poor Spain: backward, never really recovered from it’s colonial-plundering-mercantilist past, losing the Armada, then South America, then Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish-American war, stifled by conservative royalty and church, consigned to the backwaters under 35 years of fascist dictatorship. Then consider what they’ve done over the past four decades compared to the U.S.

Historian Alan Brinkley noted, as Frank Rich recently wrote, “we will soon enter the fourth decade in which Congress — and therefore government as a whole — has failed to deal with any major national problem, from infrastructure to education. The gridlock isn’t only a function of polarized politics and special interests. There’s also been a gaping leadership deficit.”

The Spanish rail map is of only the high-speed system now built, being built and planned, as mapped in 2008. That’s for an area about the size of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana combined, an area that has only one “higher” speed line in the planning stage. The first leg of their system — Seville to Madrid — opened in 1992. That was almost two decades ago! This year Spain will have the most high-speed track in the world. We’re just — maybe — awakening from slumber.

European energy efficiency looms as a huge comparative advantage over the U.S. in the future. This rail is nine times as energy efficient as automobiles and it’s carbon footprint is miniscule compared to air travel. The economic development potential of high-speed rail is significant. I’m not going to get into it here, but a glimpse of it is provided in this video from MIT.

You can read more here.

Or from a Midwestern America perspective here.

So why not here?

The stimulus money is a start, as is the $400 million the state has committed, (although where it’s coming from, given they can’t even make payroll, is a big question). And Governor Quinn just announced $60 million for a line from Chicago to the Quad Cities through Rockford. Other stimulus dollars are going to lines from Chicago into Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. 
Quinn said he is committed to “making Illinois an inland port that will be the leading rail transportation hub in the U.S.” Likewise, Senator Durbin, echoing Bruno’s sense of inevitability said, “Chicago … will soon become the major high-speed rail hub of the Midwest and nation.” Again, I’m skeptical.

When electric mass transit was tentatively put forward in C-U as something to look into a few years ago, it was quickly hooted down. Today, instead of looking at high-speed rail, and other future industries, we are looking at widening highways and building new roads for the trucking industry. Hell, we can’t even get bus service into a large section of the community because of recalcitrant NIMBY revanchists in Savoy. One need only read some of the comments to recent stories about the rail stimulus money, or blogosphere comments, to see the deep cynicism, irrational hatred, and rigid ideologies that are more about fear than reason, to get a sense of how difficult it is to get past the poison.

No doubt the professional naysayers will soon be out in force over the stimulus rail money. The oil companies and other vested interest-funded propaganda institutes will be ginning up studies and publishing stories consistent with their economic theology and the interests of their patrons.

It’s that old fashioned can’t-do-spirit. They likely think the Erie Canal and the National Road were seedbeds of creeping socialism and government overreach. We know what they said about New Deal. But the CCC built the parks we love today; Hoover Dam got built, as did facilities all over the country that are still in use. And they organized it effectively and efficiently with the telephone, telegraph and snail mail. Shouldn’t all those touted benefits of the information revolution allow us do ten times more at half the cost? What the hell is wrong?

This is what’s wrong: “What … is happening throughout this country is a strong and unified reaction to over-reaching, intrusive and incompetent governance. It is the incarnation of the American ethic of self-reliance and rightful distrust of big government that is embodied in antipathy towards every piece of legislation this Administration and this Congress has championed.” That’s our benighted congressman Tim Johnson commenting on the state of the union address.

I thought he was part of that “restore civility, reach across the aisle” bullshit. This sounds like Republican boilerplate directed at FDR, or just plain tea-bagger idiocy. Incarnation? Embodied? Unified? What is the source of this intoxicated hypocritical swill? Does Johnson include the FutureGen project he loves so much in this incompetent governance? Will he issue an outraged condemnation of the $1.25 billion in stimulus bill funds sent to Illinois for rail? He voted against the bill, after all.

How does he get away with this? Recently, the editor of our ultra-right local newspaper wrote a nasty bit of fear mongering about how moving detainees from Guantanamo to the prison in western Illinois could lead to Chechen terrorists holding the kids at Yankee Ridge School hostage. (I’d link it, but the Gazette wisely refuses to put his columns on the website). Echoing Johnson’s statements on the matter, he basically says, “we are weak, be afraid, be very afraid.” Then he does some more sniveling about the essential issue of Chief Illiniwek.

Are we as ignorant, fearful and resentful as the Gazette and Johnson seem to think we are? (A random sample of letters to the Gazette editor would say, yes). When our politicians, commentators and major media institutions seem so detached from the facts of the world, more interested in petty points than dealing with the enormous trends that are burying us, then what? This is what: high-speed rail is not inevitable for C-U, nor is energy efficiency, nor is sustainability, nor is meaningful economic development (i.e. not just real estate speculation), nor is a decent quality of life.

As a Silicon Valley fuel cell company founder recently said, “Our two-party political system is broken just when everything needs major repair, not minor repair. I am talking about health care, infrastructure, education, and energy. We are the ones who need a Marshall Plan now.”

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