High-speed rail in Minnesota, Fear Mongering and Perspective

The following is a recent "Local View" piece that was published recently on the opinion page of my local paper, the Duluth News Tribune.  I include my response, which has also been submitted to the paper but has yet to be published.

Local view: Europe can keep fast trains, and we can keep our pickups

Published 12/09/2010, Duluth News Tribune

We’re just sitting on the sidelines while they are eating our lunch.” hose were words spoken by outgoing 8th Congressional District congressman and House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar in a Nov. 17 article in the News Tribune. Oberstar had just come back from a short trip to France, where he made observations about their heavily subsidized rail-transportation system.  He also commented that gas in Europe was $3 to $4 per gallon more expensive than here because taxes from gas sales there are used to subsidize rail transit.

I don't mean to come down hard on Jim Oberstar.  He's certainly been through a lot lately.  However, issues regarding subsidized passenger rail transport will persist well beyond Oberstar's legacy.  The issues include the proposed passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Many of us have been on a European vacation, or at least have friends who have spent time across the Atlantic.  They speak of rich history, fantastic architecture, wonderful food, fashion and a transportation system where automobiles take a back seat to trains.  Also, because gas is two to three times more expensive, Europeans drive much smaller cars that do not consume nearly as much gas as many of the vehicles on the American market.

When people return from a European vacation, they seem to focus on what the Europeans have that we don't when the shoe should be on the other foot.  Trains are cool, especially really fast ones like the French TGV, but they don't pay for themselves.

Heavily subsidized rail transportation makes a lot more sense on the densely populated East Coast than it does to people in northern Minnesota who love outdoor recreation.  Are people really prepared to sacrifice large aspects of their way of life in order to subsidize rail transit?

We hunt, fish, snowmobile and spend weekends at the cabin here.  We drive trucks and SUVs that get us around in the snow and haul our toys.  If the recession didn't do enough to harm power-recreation sales, imagine the damage from a $7-a-gallon gasoline.

We value our way of life in Minnesota.  Our state quarter features two people fishing in a boat.  It's who we are.  We live in a unique place where even middle-class families can afford a small cabin and even the poor who prioritize can afford a boat for fishing and a truck to haul it.  These all require gas.

If we decide to subsidize rail transportation with $7-a-gallon gasoline, it would be catastrophic to the way of life we hold dear in Minnesota.  Can you picture someone hauling a deer out of the woods on top of a Smart car?  How about towing a pontoon with a Ford Fiesta?  Sounds ridiculous, bu that could be reality if it costs $250 to gas up an F-150.

A day of fishing should be preserved for future generations of all income levels, not just for the privileged few who can afford it.  This would be the consequence if the liberals get their way and dramatically raise gasoline taxes to pay for trains.  I think our transportation system is wonderful because it empowers individuals to make choices based on needs.

Just because a transportation solution works for Europe does not mean it will work for us in northern Minnesota.  The Europeans can ooh and ah over fast trains all they want, but I'll be eating my lunch from the fresh fish I caught at the lake.


In Response to Dave Z.

In a recent local view, Dave Zbaracki lauds the rugged American individualism and exceptionalism that sets the US apart from other countries.  The specific case of his paean to our supposed uniqueness arises from his comparison of subsidized high-speed rail in Europe and the prospect of the proposed passenger rail line between Duluth and the Twin cities.  Dave writes, “Are people really prepared to sacrifice large aspects of their way of life in order to subsidize rail transit?” 

I find this question troubling for a number of reasons.  It is not clear that the consequences of high-speed rail, something that is present in all other industrialized countries and even in some developing ones, would require Minnesotans to sacrifice our “way of life.”  Dave equates high-speed rail with large increases in gas prices, i.e. $7 a gallon.  What he ignores is that gas is already effectively subsidized in the US through massive tax breaks to multinational energy corporations and subsidies for ethanol, and its real price, factoring in environmental “externalities” and production costs has been calculated as high as $12.  Continuing to consume gas and other energy derived from fossil fuel sources in an unsustainable manner while ignoring the true costs of our consumption is pure folly.  It will only lead us down a path where changes to our lifestyles will come whether we like it or not, yet they will potentially be much more painful the longer we wait to address the problems confronting us.

It is quite conceivable to imagine constructing a high-speed rail line in Minnesota without it being funded exclusively by a tax on gas.  The US federal government seems to have trillions of dollars for defense and private sector handouts, surely some funds could be made available to invest in the country’s infrastructure.  Indeed, there are some federal funds available to support high-speed rail and we could certainly work to ensure more such funding becomes available.  Construction of high-speed rail would take a necessary step away from a fossil fuel based economy, and hence towards dealing with the global warming.  It would also provide a boost to the real economy by transforming an existing highly skilled workforce in the manufacturing sector that has been seeing jobs leave the country and convert them into the green manufacturing jobs that we desperately need.  There is a precedent for such a transformation.  During WWII there was a shift in the private auto industry from car to bomber plane production in the manufacturing plants as it was deemed a national priority.  By placing a similar importance on the development of mass transit and keeping high skill manufacturing jobs in the county we could take an  important step towards meeting the demands of placed upon us by global warming and the changing world economy.
While there are aspects of the high-speed rail plans/debate that I disagree with, such as seeking to buy the technology from Europe instead of producing it in the US, these are problems that could be addressed to the benefit of US workers, the US economy, and hence the world economy as a whole.

To suggest that high-speed rail would irreparably transform Minnesotan’s way of life for the worse is not only a far-fetched assertion, it is irresponsible in light of the grave environmental and deep structural economic problems facing the state and the country today.

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