Monday, February 7, 2011

Help Wanted: Infrastructure Investment

This is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on traveling in China back in 2007, when he took the 250-miles-per-hour magnetic levitation (Maglev) train from Shanghai Pudong International Airport into the city:

"I had a full cup of coffee and I watched the coffee,'' the mayor said, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. "It didn't vibrate once. It was really quite amazing. And other countries are trying to do the same thing, create other modes of transportation that are much more effcient, much more rapid and answer the needs in a global world.''

Every American who has traveled the world in the last decade or so has had a similar experience - often many of them. I, too, have marveled at the Maglev train on my visits to Shanghai, and been deeply impressed by new roads I've used in Malaysia, fast trains in Japan and France, new airport terminals in Barcelona, Beijing, Singapore, Madrid, Tokyo and Cairo, and new airports -not new terminals, new airports - in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and beyond. My home country, the United States - the nation that built the Panama Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, a continent-spanning interstate highway system and more - has fallen well off the pace in creating and even just maintaining travel infrastructure.

To their credit, U.S. political leaders like Bloomberg and President Barack Obama recognize this and are trying to do something about it. Three hundred million Americans and millions of international visitors will benefit in tangible ways if their vision is realized. Just how soon - or even if - that happens remains to be seen, thanks to intransient and in some cases narrow-minded political opponents who are using federal and state deficits as reasons for doing nothing.

In last month's State of the Union speech, Obama made a case for building and upgrading travel infrastructure as an investment in the future:

"Our infrastructure used to be the best,'' Obama observed, "but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a D.

"Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I'm proposing that we redouble those efforts.

"We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians.

"Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which would allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying ... As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.''

Or are they? Politicians can't stop being politicians. Republican Party deficit hawks - notably silent when fellow Republicans George W. Bush and the unaccountably sainted Ronald Reagan were running up record-high deficits themselves - say the country can't afford it. Some travel-industry analysts and political pundits point out that Republican congressional districts - which tend to be rural and lightly populated - average just one-11th the population density of urban Democratic Party-held districts, thus accounting for hostility to mass transit.

Some of this hostility verges on the irrational, such as statements by Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, that he would return $2.4 billion in promised federal subsidies for high-speed rail to his state since he considers high-speed rail a boondoggle. Other conservative leaders, notably Rep. John L. Mica, also a Florida Republican, has said he isn't against high-speed rail but would prefer that the private sector develop it, as he thinks that would be more cost-effective than having government do it. He could be right, who knows? Simply dismissing the idea of building high-speed rail won't answer the question.

Oh, and did I mention Amtrak, the U.S.'s perennially beseiged federally subsidized passenger rail system, will be stripped of public funds if political opponents have their way? The notion that efficient public transport more than pays for itself in reducing transport times, pollution from motor vehicles and improving shipping times for cargo has simply been discounted.

It shouldn't be. Obama and Bloomberg are to be commended for thinking big and thinking smart. Travelers the world over, not just in the U.S., have got to hope that the roadblocks in their way are pushed aside by clear-thinking people of all political colorations.

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