Public transit can be better, if we don’t listen to Carter

One of the complaints of many migrants from more industrialized countries is the minimal level of public transit in the States. While containing a minimal public bus service and national highway system, the US lacks one critical form of public transportation. Along with Canada, the US does not have a nationalized form of public high speed rail. There are several reasons given for the absence of national rail in the US. However, given the present circumstances, there is little excuse for the so-called “global leader” to lag in this critical element of infrastructure. What the hell, USA?

There are several reasons given for the current state of affairs. The first is that it is too expensive to consider a national rail system, yet every modern industrialized nation has one, despite the fact the US has the highest GDP in the world. Another points to the enormous geographic challenge, yet, the national highway system clearly proves this thesis false, combined with the fact that even Russia and China also have national rail systems. If the world’s two largest countries can maintain large national rail systems, surely, the fourth largest country should have no trouble. The next reason turns to state over federal action as the holy solution to all domestic policy problems, yet, again, the national highway system was explicitly funded at the national level, under a Republican president’s administration (hence, the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways). Amtrak, the national rail system was created under another Republican‘s administration: Richard Nixon. While Amtrak has control of major lines on the northeastern and western coastal areas, the majority of track is shared with freight. Then, the ultimate, anti-scientific dodge: that railroads are far more difficult than roads to make given the large size of the country. Government-contracted engineers largely based the national highway on railroad experience from the last century, and that’s considering that railroads were built without much of the technology available to highway engineers.

What really then is the reason for the lack of a public rail system like those in other parts of the world? Rail transportation in the US is largely privatized, and, as with any commonly used good, has vested interests seeking profit over public welfare. Despite, the debate over public over private, the real issue is whether this public good, which even today is funded by taxpayer dollars, will serve corporate interests or ordinary citizens. In this sense, it’s not a matter of changing a good from private to public as much as it is to increase funding and muster government officials’ will to take on the challenge as Eisenhower did. There’s one other element to consider, which is that a national rail system, like a national highway system produces enormous numbers of potential jobs for those concerned about the economy. As noted in Eisenhower’s memoir:

“More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America. … Its impact on the American economy – the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up – was beyond calculation.”


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