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Why Do Conservatives Hate High-Speed Rail? 5 Reasons Right-Wingers Are Sabotaging Public Transportation Projects

In addition to busting unions and gutting voting rights, Tea Party governors are refusing federal funding for high-speed rail. What do they have against it?
 
 
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High-speed rail is one of the rare areas where business, labor, and environmental activists are often in agreement. Republican transportation secretary Ray LaHood is a fan, as are, of course, President Obama and Vice-President Biden.

But Tea Party-supported governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Scott in Florida have made headlines by refusing billions in federal stimulus dollars aimed at creating new high-speed train lines between major cities.

The trains would be electric-powered, providing comparable travel times to regional plane flights but cheaper, running on cleaner energy, and without the same security concerns. Real estate developers and other business types saw new rail lines as an opportunity to invest in new places, and the rail projects would create both construction jobs and permanent jobs operating and maintaining the new trains.

So what's the problem? Why do conservatives hate high-speed rail so much? They claim it's all about money, but handing back billions in federal dollars while claiming to be broke doesn't seem to make much fiscal sense. We did a little research, and here's what we found:

1. Big infrastructure projects leave a big legacy--and this one would belong to President Obama.

It's no secret that the GOP's number one goal is to shoot down anything that Obama wants, even at the expense of their own constituents. It's also no secret that they hate government spending ideologically, and hate it even more when it actually accomplishes something positive--and visible. 

Maybe Rachel Maddow is the only person who actually thinks infrastructure is a sexy political term. Yet high-speed rail is the kind of infrastructure project that is sexy. It's new technology, which requires research and development, and the trains themselves are sleek and futuristic.

And when the trains are built, they're there for everyone to see and use. Like the Interstate Highway System, built by Dwight Eisenhower, they'll be a lasting accomplishment, a testament to what the federal government can do when it decides to spend money instead of obsess over cuts.

High-speed rail investment was a signature project for President Obama, and if it happens and people like it, he'll get the credit. No wonder conservative governors are thrilled to have the opportunity to take his money and shove it back in his face.

2. Union jobs

You don't have to take our word for it—instead, take the word of Investors Business Daily:

“So who could possibly benefit from such a boondoggle? Unions, along with the politicians they vote for — in this case Obama and California Democrats, who'll be able to trade construction jobs and other union sop for votes.”

Construction jobs and other union sop are just what the country so desperately needs at the moment—employment for millions of people out of work. Union construction jobs would pay good wages and provide benefits as well. And union transit workers would be new, permanently employed workers in areas of the country, like Ohio, that have been hurting for work for years before the current recession.

So why are governors, who were elected to put their constituents back to work, so opposed to money going into projects that would create that very work? It would strengthen the unions, who support other policies that conservatives hate—Social Security and Medicare, universal health care, job protections, and other progressive policies. It's ideological opposition to unions as much as it is the continued war on the working class.

And speaking of the working class...

3. Collectivism! Socialism!

George Will thinks that trains are pernicious behavior modification:

“Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons -- to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they -- unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted -- are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.”

But before he was against high-speed rail, Will was for it. Back in 2001, after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, Will wrote a column calling for trains as an anti-terror measure. Seriously. Putting in high-speed trains would lighten the load on air travel, making airports easier to secure—and one would assume, though you could hijack a train, you can't drive it anywhere its rails don't go.

Will is right on one level, though. Public transportation puts everyone on the same level. Fast-food workers and bankers get off at the same stop on the train. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg famously rides the subway to work (even though he's a billionaire).

On the other hand, one of the concerns some progressives have about high-speed rail is that it will prove, like highways, to be yet another government subsidy for those who already have money. After all, high-speed inter-city transit won't be the same as cheap subways or buses—it'll be pricier and likely used primarily by business travelers.

But with decent public investment and proper administration, high-speed rail could be kept affordable and available to all. And that's exactly what conservatives like Will really don't want. Much better to keep pumping money into highways, which keeps individuals buying cars and gasoline. Because the same politicians who have a huge problem with high-speed rail have no problem with government spending on roads.

4. 'Urban' vs. 'Rural'

Public transit is an “urban” issue—it works best in densely populated areas. High-speed rail will be no exception, as it is most efficient when running from one urban center to another. And urban areas have more diverse populations, progressive politicians, and already-existing public transportation infrastructure.

Like much of the rest of the Tea Party's rage, opposition to public transit is based in values. Steven Harrod, writing at CNN.com, says, “Many critics of passenger rail emotionally identify it as an enabler of cultural values they fear.”

Urban vs. rural. People of color vs. white people. Public investment of any kind has been branded by the conservative movement as a way for the government to take away money from hardworking, independent (white) people and give handouts to freeloaders, usually seen as nonwhite people.

But Harrod notes that actually, when it comes to transit, urban folks are actually subsidizing rural drivers. Fuel taxes, he writes, are disproportionately paid by urban drivers on local roads that are often not funded by those taxes—and they go into maintaining highways on which everyone drives.

Public investment in an “urban corridor” rail project, by contrast, would pump money into those urban areas, and, Harrod writes, provide infrastructure and incentive for even more urban development.

More money and a denser population in cities seems like a recipe for more progressive voters. And as if to prove this point, apparently some governors are perfectly happy with spending money on high-speed rail as long as it doesn't do anything to help cities that oppose them—Scott Walker first rejected federal funds for a rail project that would connect Milwaukee to Madison, and then requested money instead for a train from Milwaukee to Chicago.

As Mike Hall at the AFL-CIO noted, “So, apparently Walker supports the concept of high-speed rail and doesn’t mind federal funds, as long as it doesn’t help get people—especially those pesky protesters—quicker to Madison.”

5. High-speed rail will change our lifestyles—and we like them!

Conservatives who fear changes brought about by high-speed rail aren't wrong, of course, that transportation will change us. The shape of our cities and suburbs for the past 50 years or more has been largely because of transportation. Without cars, we'd never have had suburbs, let alone exurbs.

With Obama's stated goal of making high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of the US population within 25 years, that probably means cities that look different than they do now. It'll be time to encourage urban density rather than suburban sprawl, shift away from cars, and create public transportation systems that make environmentally friendly transit accessible to all, regardless of income or social class.

James E. Moore II complained in the Los Angeles Timesthat cheap gasoline means that high-speed rail will never be able to compete with cars and planes, but this is a short-sighted plan even if he does pay lip service to the oxymoronic idea of burning gasoline and jet fuel “even more cleanly.” We need to move beyond small changes to our existing lifestyle and make investments in what our lifestyle will look like 50, 100 years from now.

Jon Rynn at New Deal 2.0 wrote:

“Building infrastructure is what governments do best. In fact, one could say that civilization started when the first governments constructed the irrigation and drainage systems that enabled agriculture to flourish. The United States, like every successful country, has a long and rich history of infrastructure building, without which the country would have very likely stayed poor. From canals like the Erie Canal before the Civil War, to the railroads after, from the dams that even conservative Republicans like Calvin Coolidge initiated, to the WPA that built libraries, schools, airports, roads, and other structures in virtually every town, to the Interstate Highway System championed by a Republican president, the United States has kept itself at the forefront of the global economy by making the building of transportation, energy, communications, water, education, and other systems the foundation of prosperity.”

Our society will be fundamentally shaped by a major change in our transportation and infrastructure like a new high-speed rail system. And that's not a bad thing, as we face down global climate change as well as bedrock changes in our economic system.

It would be a bad thing, though, if conservative politicians and fearful voters shut down innovative technologies that could help us live more sustainably and justify their refusal to change by claiming concern for spending. The lack of willingness to invest in forward-looking programs like high-speed rail shows the utter lack of positive ideas at the base of today's Republican party.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.