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Vision: Ready or Not, Our Cheap Oil Economy Is Collapsing and We Need to Embrace High-Speed Rail

A conversation about high-speed rail's promise, fossil fuel's forsaken future and transforming our current nightmare of American transportation.

U.S. High Speed Rail Association president and CEO Andy Kunz is no stranger to American sprawl and consumption. He was raised in Florida in a household in which every family member had a car and drove miles to get anywhere. But after studying urban planning and witnessing the fearsome waste behind America's impoverished suburban principles, which have only degraded more as crippling economic depressions and environmental catastrophes have taken hold, Kunz decided to evangelize high-speed rail as an oil-free solution to America's disastrous transportation. We talked by phone about high-speed rail's limitless promise, fossil fuel's forsaken future and transforming our current nightmare of American hyperconsumption and transportation back to its productive pre-WWII dream state.

Scott Thill: So far, it seems that California is furthest ahead in its plans for building out its high-speed rail infrastructure, with Florida a close second. Is that accurate?

Andy Kunz: Well, I would say as a state California is further along, in terms of having a comprehensive plan. But when it comes to shovel-ready projects, Florida is further along in Tampa and Orlando. That project is basically ready to go out to bid.

ST: So what's the hold-up?

AK: The hold-up is the new governor coming in and saying, "Maybe we ought to analyze this closer," or "I don't want to put tax dollars into it."

ST: Do you think other states will hedge like that, given the recent midterm elections?

AK: No, I don't agree with that. There are 50 states in the country, and only two sent back rail money. And one potential governor, Meg Whitman, who ran on killing the project, lost in California. So we had a few people, especially in Wisconsin and Ohio, coming out against it, and I think it's backfired on them. There have been protests and business leaders mad as hell about canceled $100 million real estate projects that were going to be built near the rail stations. So I think those two governors are going to wish they never came out against rail, because they just killed hundreds of jobs.

In Wisconsin, there was a Spanish rail factory that may end up closing now, because the governor killed the project. In the big picture, oil prices are already rapidly approaching $100 a barrel, and this rail project is the single largest solution to escalating oil prices. So to have a new governor come in and kill the project is going to prove to be a big mistake.

ST: Do you think that will be too late to ameliorate what the U.S. Joint Forces Command is calling a peak oil crunch as early as 2015? How do you think energy politics and climate change might complicate the process?

AK: The two are totally interrelated. And this isn't a temporary oil crunch. Experts say this is a permanent situation: We're never going to see $20 barrels of oil again, which is what America as we know it now was built on. When you build an entire nation of highways and suburbia, where people use their cars to do everything, all of a sudden your entire society cracks when oil hits $100 a barrel.

You can't afford to operate. Big-box retail was built around $20 barrels of oil. Wal-Mart's whole concept is going to collapse, because it's based on cheap oil every step of the way. Shipping goods from China is going to change, because the fuel is going to be so expensive that China is no longer a bargain.

In fact, that's already happening. Manufacturers are now setting up shop in Mexico, to save on transportation costs. We really face an unbelievably serious crisis and I think the military estimates are exactly right. Each year, our population and consumption keep growing, but every year there is less oil available. That's a serious situation that no one is really facing yet. If everyone sat down and took a good look at what that means for our nation and its economy, they'd be in emergency mode, searching for a transportation infrastructure no longer dependent on oil. Electric rail is it. It's the only thing we can do to take a huge bite out of our transportation consumption.

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