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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.
 
 
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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.

ST: What about electric cars?

AK: Electric cars are not going to do it. Biofuels are not going to do it. They will have a small part to play, but a national rail system powered by electricity, wind and solar is going to be the only thing that will make a massive difference. You could have transportation forever.

This oil crunch is the real deal. The fact that it is not a day-to-day topic in the White House and Congress is actually very alarming. Some of them even look at energy policy as entirely separate from transportation, despite the fact that they're so interlinked. Our transportation habits are exactly why we need 20 millions barrels of oil a day, and that's going to be hard to get, starting now. Saudi Arabia's fields are down, Mexico is way down, Russia has peaked, Venezuela has peaked. The fact that we're desperate to dredge tar sands and drill for oil 5,000 feet beneath the ocean floor shows you how much trouble we're in already.

ST: Well, you're talking about fully transforming an American ideal of mobility and consumption. Car culture is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and wallet. Ari Fleischer once called it the 'American way of life.'

AK: My background is urban design, so I'm deeply involved in this. The American dream of living in a suburban house and driving 30 miles to your job? That's how I grew up in Florida, and that's still currently the American way of life now. But in the '20s, the American way of life looked just like Paris. Everyone was living in big cities, riding street trains, no one had cars. So America was built the right way. We already had that lifestyle and America loved it. But companies in the oil and auto industry, working hand-in-hand with the government, converted the country away from that system.

America wasn't born with the system we had now, it was only later that Americans decided they were different than the rest of the world and had to drive 50 miles a day. That was not born into our DNA. Our country was originally built like London and most of Europe, and it worked quite well. So the American dream as we know it is somewhat of a myth; we've erased American history, so to speak, prior to 1945. From 1945 forward, we built a different America based on sprawl. But the days of plentiful cheap oil are over, so whether we want to change or not, we will be forced to. And America is going to have a tough time adjusting.

ST: We're not doing a good job of it so far, given our overseas escapades, which are wasting both much-need money and oil.

AK: We're spending a trillion dollars to run a military operation whose mission I think most people would agree was locking down some of the last oil reserves on Earth, to make sure we have a shot at it. It's quite obvious that over half of the U.S. military overseas is guarding oil pipelines, refineries and shipping lanes, all to guarantee a flow of fuel to American SUVs. How much longer can we sustain that?

It's draining our wealth, we're killing people right and left. We've got two contradictory, unsustainable systems: Sprawl and war. So it's not a matter of whether people want to change or not. They're going to change. The only choice is whether they do it voluntarily, or kicking and screaming. We're the biggest consumer of oil on the planet: We consume around a quarter of the world's oil, although we only have around five percent of the world's population. That's already well-known around the world, and a lot of people are pissed off about it.

We're using more than our share. We have this attitude where we can be fat, drive huge cars and screw the rest of the world. That's doesn't go over very well with people in other countries that are struggling.

ST: It stings worse when those of us who do live in cities understand that the real value of the America that's left is no longer located in its sprawl, but in its energy-conscious cities.

AK: The highest-priced real estate is America is not suburban housing. It's urban apartments in Manhattan, Boston, Georgetown, San Francisco and so on. That shows that you have a sizable chunk of people living in cities using public transportation. The 70 percent of the nation still living in the suburbs is a problem, although the real estate meltdown that happened in tandem with the oil spike wiped any further sprawl off the map.

Obviously, the further out you go, the cheaper the housing. But at some point, the escalating transportation costs cross that out. Eventually, the whole household is ripped apart and turned upside down. The bottom line is that the trends have already been reversing: People have been moving back to the cities, New Urbanists have been reeducating architects and city planners to create away from suburban principles and toward transit-oriented development like rail.

And now that oil prices are creeping back up, some people are realizing again that rail is indispensable. In the Northeast corridor, those trains are busy all the time. During the oil price spikes of 2008, every train system in America saw increased ridership. After oil prices dropped down, ridership stayed high because some people realized rail is actually a decent, cheap form of transportation.

ST: They weren't dying in gridlock.

AK: Yeah, and they could actually work or sleep on the train. They could work on their laptops, talk on their phones, do all kinds of things. When you're sitting in gridlock, you can't even blink away for a second or look at your phone without worrying about hitting the car in front of you. Rail is a way out of that mess, and you'll have a higher quality lifestyle. It's brilliant.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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