Government and Transportation

Every single time. I swear. From the Washington Post's editorial page, an editorial talking about how to reduce the deficit:
6. Eliminate outdated, ineffective and wasteful programs. Across-the-board domestic spending cuts perpetuate bad programs and penalize the good. This ensures lousy government. Subsidies for farmers, public broadcasting and Amtrak, among others, should end.
Hey look, there's Amtrak again! Funny how that seems to come up whenever spending cuts are talked about. I mean, it's not like we consider highway spending (eight and a half times that of railway spending) or aviation spending (over twice that of railway spending) to be low-hanging fruit worthy of cutting. I wonder why that is...

Right. Transportation is one of those necessities. Modern society simply cannot function without access to effective, safe, reliable ways of moving goods and services around. What's more, it's not something that can be easily privatized, despite calls to do so. There's no profit in paving a road, not unless you make it a toll road. (And with things the way they are, you'd more likely get people following alternate routes if you tried to charge the kind of tolls that profitability would require. Or you'd just force them not to take the road at all.)

Airlines and shipping companies may be private corporations, but the air traffic control grid or the network of interstate highways rely on government spending to build and maintain. Such spending is tolerated - must be tolerated - not because these are profitable enterprises, but because having them is an absolute necessity.

And yet railroads have to be profitable before they can be built. Setting aside the sheer impossibility of building them as a private enterprise (more on that in a moment), I'm curious as to why rail transport is held to a higher standard than anything else. Maintaining highways or air traffic control don't have to be profitable, and yet we spend money on them.

Rail transport, done right, could get me from Washington D.C. to New York in an hour and a half, or from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two and a half. Even if that wasn't profitable (and the experience of the model on which I'm basing these numbers, the Tokaido Shinkansen in Japan, suggests that it very well could be even with reasonable fares and competition from airlines), the ability to travel quickly and easily between those cities would almost certainly provide a noticeable boost to their economies, wouldn't it? Never mind the jobs involved in building and maintaining railway lines.

Private corporations are never going to do it though. Not when building such a rail system would cost hundreds of millions, if not billions (good luck getting that loan!), for the sake of something that pays off slowly if at all. No, transportation is and will remain one of those things for which we rely on the government to support. It's past time that we accepted that for railroads and high-speed rail, as we have for everything else.

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