Transportation these days isn’t about getting from here to there, but about creating government-funded jobs and pursuing big-vision projects that have little correlation to how we actually live.
Americans suffer under the delusion that transportation systems are just that – systems for transporting people from one destination to another. What most of us fail to recognize is that the politicians, activists and planners who play the greatest roles in creating those systems have far different goals.
To today’s transportation movers and shakers, such systems are giant jobs-creation programs designed to boost economies and provide high wages to members of influential unions – and are key to remaking society in a way that is nicer to the environment and leads to a changed citizenry that is less likely to rely on automobiles. Think of transportation these days less as civil engineering and more as social engineering.
Grasping those points is crucial to understanding the debate in California over a proposed high-speed-rail system, a project defined by inexplicable route selections, massive cost overruns, predicted travel times that will never be realized even under the most optimistic scenarios, and fantasy-land funding promises.
None of those realities stops the political locomotives promoting “high-speed” rail from chugging along. At a news conference last month, a coalition of construction unions and business leaders championed the project. “We need jobs, and we need jobs now,” one union official said at the rally, according to a Palo Alto publication.
But government cannot create economic growth by shaking down taxpayers and running up debt, even if those dollars are used to benefit one particular interest group in one segment of the economy.
At least we know where the unions are coming from. But consider the big picture, as pitched by President Barack Obama: “What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. … Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”
Actually, it’s hard to know what he is talking about. Riders still need to get from home to the center of a city, and there’s no way that any rail system is going to take most riders to within walking distance of their destinations. Train rides are far slower than plane flights. I have pipe dreams, too, but at least I don’t have the ability to fund them with your money.