VISION: Can a New High-Speed Rail System Save the American Dream?

Crippled by economic depression and environmental catastrophe, the American dream is dead in the water. And with peak oil hot on its hyperconsuming heels, America is looking for solutions, and it may have found a good one in the form of an ambitious national high-speed rail network that would connect its metropoles and mid-size cities together in green solidarity. Better late than never.

"In the '20s, the American way of life looked just like Paris," U.S. High-Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) president Andy Kunz told AlterNet by phone in a wide-ranging interview. (Read the entire interview here.) "Everyone was living in big cities, riding street trains, no one had cars," he added. "But the oil and auto industries, working hand-in-hand with the government, converted the country away from that system. America wasn't born with the system we had now. So the American dream as we know it is somewhat of a myth.

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."

It will be much easier to adjust to the unimaginable economic and environmental crunches coming our way if we launched that system before peak oil smacks us upside the head as early as 2015, according to a recent report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command. And that's being generous; some would argue that we've been experiencing peak oil's birth pangs for over a decade. Right now, USHSRA's projected rail network envisions functional regional high-speed networks in California, the Pacific Northwest, Northeast and Great Lakes region by 2015, and then a complete national system by 2030. But there's no time to waste.

"If everyone sat down and took a good look at what the military's report means for our nation and its economy, they'd be in emergency mode, searching for a transportation infrastructure no longer dependent on oil," explained Kunz. "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."

But before America can work its way toward that sustainable transportation future, it has to pull some thick-headed anachronists out of the past. After the 2010 midterm elections ushered new politicians into the volatile electoral mix, two incoming Republican governors -- Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich, respectively -- killed their state's high-speed rail projects, and the millions of dollars and thousands of jobs that went along with them.

The same lame scenario is playing out right now in Florida, whose governor-elect Rick Scott is jeopardizing billions of stimulus dollars and much-needed jobs for no good reason, despite the fact that his state is the closest to making high-speed rail a sustainable reality.

"As a state, California is further along, in terms of having a comprehensive plan," Kunz said. "But when it comes to shovel-ready projects, Florida is further along. That project is basically ready to go out to bid. The hold-up is the new governor."

Despite these politicized setbacks, U.S. high-speed rail is attracting attention and potential investment from China and Japan, as well as multinational corporations looking to take an A-train to increased ridership and the profits it will bring. But until Florida gets its proverbial ass in gear, California is leaving everyone else in the dust.

The Case For California

With one progressive eye on alternative energy and another on rebooting the state's sagging employment, California's sprawling high-speed rail project is blazing hundreds of green miles to a post-peak oil future. But it's also taking dumb shots from compromised contrarians, while trying to connect the state's swollen metropoles, and some of its smaller cities, in hopes of providing Californians a more productive and less toxic transportation atmosphere.

"International high-speed rail projects are cash positive," Rachel Wall, spokesperson for California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), explained to AlterNet by phone. "And that's what we're looking forward to in California. There are going to be a lot of communities touched by this project when it is fully realized."

The plan is simple: Connect over 25 cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Anaheim to northern cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento with electrically powered trains traveling 200-plus miles an hour, kiss goodbye the excess pollution from commuter cars and planes, create thousands of jobs and alleviate citizen suffering and lethal emissions. (There might even be a desert express stretching to Las Vegas, if that consensual mirage can survive climate change's devastating desertification.)

Along the way, CHSRA will stitch California's major economies, airports and other nerve centers together into a whole that will remake the entire state into one massive metropolis. Think Northern California's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system for a mid-size nation -- which California is, more or less, given that it is around the world's eighth-largest economy -- and you're there.

"We're talking about 800 miles under environmental review," Wall said. "We had to break it up into nine segments for the review process."

Initial funding for the project began in 2008, when California voters approved Proposition 1A, setting aside around $10 billion for the project. More recently, CHSRA scored additional billions, thanks to the short-sighted Republicans of Ohio and Wisconsin who returned stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), dooming their citizenry to fewer jobs and more transportation migraines. Flush with extra rerouted cash, persistent optimism and a site mandate from the Federal Railroad Administration, CHSRA announced in early December that construction of a 65-mile stretch in the state's suffering Central Valley had gotten the green light for 2012. But you can't please everyone, including Democrats.

Biting the Train That Feeds You

"This is not a good day for California or this project," whined Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, after CHSRA announced the initial construction segment mandated by federal officials. "The process used to come to this decision was deceptive and suspect at best and may be violative of the law at worst."

Given that Merced is one of the rail's eventual stops, it's unclear what Cardoza is complaining about;. His staff refused opportunities to clarify the statement with AlterNet, an unfortunate lapse for a politician who not only proudly supported ARRA but also publicly stated that one of his top congressional priorities is energy independence and long-term solutions to gas price spikes. But Cardoza has been lumped in with other sourpuss critics who call the project a "train to nowhere." 

"The initial construction point has come under criticism, but it's a starting point," Wall explained to AlterNet. "In order to build from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we have to start somewhere, and the Central Valley is a good place, especially given the funding allocation. It's one of the cheapest locations in the state, so we can get more bang for the buck. There is a high unemployment rate in the Central Valley, and we're talking about putting 100,000 jobs back into the economy, 20,000 jobs per $1 billion spent at standard construction wages of $25 an hour. We're pulling people off the unemployment line."

Equally important, the project is receiving across-the-board support from federal and state officials, including its newly elected governor Jerry Brown, an early supporter, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In the process, the mission to have an environmentally friendly statewide transportation alternative up and running by 2020 is becoming a national beacon of sanity for a period marked by oppressive unemployment, escalating pollution and possible insolvency. It's not new by any stretch of the imagination: Long before our so-called Great Recession, President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration tried the same thing during the Great Depression, put millions to work and created lasting infrastructure. But it's "a starting point," as Wall explained, in a time where Americans are hammered by zeroes in their bank accounts as well as their confidence in the political system.

"Governor Brown was very vocal that he wants to see the project move along quickly," Wall said. "But people know that investing in infrastructure is good way to get the economy moving again."

Sharing Is Caring

For their part, California's high-speed trains are going to be moving well over 200 miles an hour, which is why most of them couldn't be simply plopped atop the state's current train rail network, some of it over a century old. But although new track has to be laid, some of it is going to share space and perhaps track with the existing rail network to intersect with major transit centers. Currently, Anaheim and CHSRA are studying the possibility of a shared track system, and other densely populated areas are interested as well.

Further, CHSRA has worked with state and local businesses and residences to stay within existing transportation corridors, in some places reducing tracks 60-80 feet wide to minimize impact. But CHSRA's goal isn't to replace trains, but supplement them, and divert much-needed clean energy back to the public where it belongs.

"We're not building an Amtrak," Wall said. "We're competing with airlines like JetBlue and Southwest, although both have said that the high-speed rail will allow them to have more long-distance flights, which is economically better for them. Our travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco is going to be two hours and 40 minutes, with stops. Anyone who has traveled that route knows that driving or flying takes longer. And instead of polluting the route, we're working with 22 agencies to make sure we can put energy back into the grid."

In the final analysis, California's high-speed rail project is a net win on fronts that truly matter. It may not make Republicans happy enough to stop becoming senseless obstructionists. It might not even soothe state Democrats like Cardoza, who claim to work for energy independence while overlooking one of the most ambitious alternative energy projects in California history. But if it is supported and realized, California's high-speed rail network could renew the state's economy, mobility and ingenuity, summarily setting it apart from lesser states with charades that pass for political and environmental leadership. That is, until those lesser states inevitably come to their senses.

"This will be a competitive, attractive option for Californians to become more mobile, not less," Wall concluded. "Infrastructure improves economies, but it does require patience. We have a lot of work to do in the next year and a half, so it's important that we keep momentum. Because the benefits will be felt by the entire state, and even outside California, once other states develop rail projects of their own."

Wake Up, Time to Ride

Once other states wake up and jump on board California's sustainable futurism, the nation's nightmarish transportation system, and its highly unsustainable and unstable consumption and waste, could at last come to an end. But linking up regional rail infrastructure into a sprawling network spanning the entire country is still a mammoth task. Which is why it deserves far greater attention than it is currently receiving, said Kunz.

"The fact that it is not a day-to-day topic in the White House and Congress is actually very alarming," he explained. "Some of them even look at energy policy as entirely separate from transportation, despite the fact that they're so interlinked. But 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."

When you crunch the numbers, what is obvious is that 2015 is just a shot away. And 2030, too, is closer than we think, given the exponential acceleration of our economic and environmental problems. Predictably, 2010 was the hottest year on Earth since global temperature records commenced in 1850, and subsequent years are sure to break that destabilizing record. The American economy sucks for everyone but the rich, and the real-estate ATMs are closed forever. National unemployment is mired around 10 percent, and that's not counting the millions who are no longer looking for work, because there isn't really any to find. Domestic terrorists are openly attempting (and succeeding) to assassinate politicians and judges in the street, while what passes for the mainstream media, owned by the most wasteful corporations on the planet, are diverting the public's attention onto lesser matters and discourse. In short, we're screwing ourselves.

A national high-speed rail network isn't going to solve all of that. But it will do much to alleviate the fossil foolishness of a nation that just recently, cosmologically speaking, rapaciously fed an addiction to oil that has little historical precedent. More importantly, it will change what ex-Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer called "an American way of life" built of Hummers, perpetual wars and lock-step conformity. High-speed rail will go a long way to altering the American psyche, and reorienting it toward a solution-based future that doesn't look like it crawled out of disaster cinema.

"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," Kunz explained. "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."


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