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Fast Train Coming?

In search of a metaphor for the gulf that separates the nation’s political parties? Look no further than the high-speed locomotive. Adored by many Democrats, who wax poetic about a speed and efficiency of communal travel, trains have become a favorite target of conservative Republicans, who fret about their cost. In the last six months, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin have turned down federal money for rail construction because, they argue, they cannot afford their share of the bill.

Ignore for a moment the political calculus that may be at work in these state capitals. (High-speed rail is a signature project of the Obama administration, which has pledged $53 billion to improve the nation’s trains.) The idea that train travel is just not an investment worth making should give every citizen pause. In the short term, rail improvements provide jobs, a prospect that any governor should welcome. And in the long term, it is a good bet that such investments will turn a profit. Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate highway system has proven to be a real moneymaker. Imagine if local governments had turned down funding because they did not want pay for the entrance ramps.


In a country as large as the United States, wedded as it is to the automobile, trains will never be as popular or prevalent as they are in Europe. Yet President Obama’s plan is not overly ambitious; it seeks to improve regional transportation and existing rail corridors. Few investments could do more to boost the country’s recovery and wean it from dependence on oil. One need not be a railroad buff to see that.

Congress Kills the Dialogue

Of all the proposed budget cuts, the most shortsighted is the determination to shut down the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which helps support NPR and PBS). The House voted in February to cut all funding. Not one Republican objected.

Perhaps it is a kabuki drama, playacting to threaten a news source like PBS—which bends over backward to be impartial and whose corporate president is a Republican, Patricia S. Harrison—into becoming even more conservative or silent. But a defunded version of PBS and NPR would be more dependent on corporate sponsorship and less free to speak truth to power. Culture would also be dumbed down and democracy’s dialogue reduced to a stammer.

The news media are already gasping for breath. News outlets have laid off reporters, cut investigative staffs and dropped book and classical music reviewers. Meanwhile the public stations have been the closest thing we have to a national university, where high culture is available free to low income people who might otherwise never hear an opera.

Some congressmen want the media to be weak and want to leave the news delivery and classical music to the free market system. So it’s back to the wasteland of laugh-track sitcoms, celebrity gossip and the ravings of Charlie Sheen as the volume surges for commercials and drug ads. And goodbye Beethoven, “American Experience,” the “News Hour,” “The Civil War,” “Frontline,” “Car Talk,” “Prairie Home Companion,” “Charlie Rose” and Sherlock Holmes. The United States, says Congress, just cannot afford you.

Tax-Dodge City

Welcome to Tax-Dodge City, a 100-year-old municipality where business booms. Today 1,800 businesses enjoy its lax regulation, low taxes and cheap utilities. The city council also has made elections hassle-free. Not one election was contested between 1984 and 2006, and now the council conveniently appoints its members. Who would vote, anyway? The population of the city is 95.

Yet Tax-Dodge owns the power and light, fire, police and health departments and every house, all 30 of them, which are rented to city workers and relatives of city officials. In Tax-Dodge, municipal salaries are high. In 2008 the city reportedly paid $1.65 million to a man who served as both city administrator and deputy city attorney; he still works as a consultant. The $500,000 annual pension of a retired city administrator is the state’s highest.

What is the city’s secret? Virtually all 50,000 local workers commute to Tax-Dodge from real towns where elected governments spend tax revenue on schools, parks and social services for their residents. In Tax-Dodge, the millions raised are divided among a few—a set-up for corruption. One person who served as mayor and councilman for 50 years was convicted of fraudulently claiming Tax-Dodge City as his legal residence. Last year a city administrator was indicted for misappropriation of public funds. The biggest hoax, though, is calling Tax-Dodge a city. Unconvinced, a state assemblyman has sponsored a bill to disincorporate cities with fewer than 151 people.

Businesses in Tax-Dodge say disincorporation would shutter them, and the Teamsters Union opposes any loss of local jobs. But every city must have residents, which is where Tax-Dodge (real name Vernon, Calif.) fails. It might be a great place to work, but no one wants to live there.

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7 years 10 months ago
Re: Congress Kills the Dialogue

       GREAT PIECE!  I pray and hope that millions will wake up this minute and realize what the implication is for all of us.  I think we are already heading towards the stone age! 
James Collins
7 years 10 months ago
NPR bends over backward to be fair? What planet are you living on? How much more evidence do you need? There may have been a time when public sudsized radio was needed. With the proliferation of radio outlets today that is no longer necessary unless of course you hate to see a liberal bastion have to make it on their own.
Chuck Radloff
7 years 10 months ago
 Aren't all the city officials Republicans??What else do you expect !!
David Smith
7 years 10 months ago
Anent high-speed rail.  I don't know about other states, but the "high-speed rail" project for which the federal government was offering recession-recovery seed money in Ohio was an absurdity.  It would have been, in fact, a *low*-speed, multi-stop line connecting four or five medium-sized cities that already have excellent, fast highway connections.  Very few people would have had any reason to travel by train among Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Toledo, and Cleveland.

The population in Ohio, like that in most of the country, is not highly concentrated, as it is in the DC-NY corridor, where trains are useful.  It's simple and easy here to simply hop in the car and drive.  Trains would have been an absurdity - even high-speed ones, which would in any case have been purely imaginary.

I don't know who pushes these rail projects, or why.  Perhaps it's planners who see only what they want to see.  Most people in America live widely spread out, in the suburbs or the countryside, and most American cities are relatively small, with probably many more job sites scattered throughout the suburbs and exurbs than in central cities.  Planners may wish it were otherwise, but it's not.
David Smith
7 years 10 months ago
"Of all the proposed budget cuts, the most shortsighted is the determination to shut down the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which helps support NPR and PBS). The House voted in February to cut all funding. Not one Republican objected."

Public-media funding includes only about ten percent government money.  Cutting off government funding would only require a little more fundraising, which should be easy to do.  In fact, my sense is that the employees of NPR/PBS/CPB/APR/etc. would be *glad*, not devastated, to be free of government money.  Ask around.
Jerome Riggs
7 years 10 months ago
Let NPR stand on its own merits. I resent my taxpayer dollars funding it.

Vernon is just the tip of the iceberg. I am surprised you did not mention Bell. So much for government transparancy and corruption.

Just what we need-high speed rail. Can anyone really be serious. Of course our president can, with his wealth of experience as a "community organizer. Just what is NOT needed to get this economy going again.
Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago
Re: Fast Trains Coming?

There it is again in the last paragraph:  "One need not be a railroad buff to see that."  the editors declare.  Oh Yeah?  Well it sure would help to be nostagic about this mode of transportation becasue otherwise it does not make sense in a modern world.  A part of every human being is nostagic to the past including past transportaiton modess such as trains.  People pay big money for vacations on square rig sailing ships, Mississippi River padde wheelers, hot air ballon rides. steam engine locamotives. stage coach rides and just plain horse rides etc. These old modes of trainsportation have a compelling beauty about them and are fondly remebered in our collective subconscious. 

But these old mode of transportaion are no longer viable means of transporation and can not be seriously use today as a means of transportation.  These old transportaion modes are outdated and obsolete and grossly lack expected modern day performace characteristics.

 It is time to realize that in America the age of intercity trains even at high speeds has long ago passed the way intercity electic trolleys passed on about a century ago for lack of economic viability.  We need to move on as part of national transportation policy to more modern and much more cost effective and adaptable means of transportation.  We do not need to spend enormous sums of money for the limited purpose of reminding oursleves of the past. 
Marie Rehbein
7 years 10 months ago
The trolley was an effective and popular way of traversing cities.  However, it was killed by those whose economic interests were served by promoting private automobiles.  Public transportation should exist, and it should be funded in such a way that no one ever has to scrounge for coins or paper in order to take a ride - in other words, it should appear to be free.  The purpose of this is ecological, and in conjunction with this, automobiles, for those who must have them, should be fueled by something other than gasoline so that they pollute less and free us from having to worry about who is governing an oil producing region.
David Smith
7 years 10 months ago
Marie (#8), trains and buses are linear, two-dimensional - they go only on fixed routes, in a line from A to B.  People in the United States don't live that way.  They live three-dimensionally - all around, all over the place.  Mass transportation simply doesn't make sense here, the way it probably does in Paris, London, and Tokyo.  In the dreams of the planners, it's all probably very different, with people's houses aligned neatly along electric train tracks.  It'll never be that way here, so it make zero sense to make transportation plans that depend on it.

Electric cars will come soon enough.  It's inevitable.  Toyota and Honda hybrids have been around for quite a while.  But electrics will certainly not be pollution free.  Nothing is pollution free, not even humans.  Especially not humans.
Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago

Marie (#8)

The intercity electric trolley was at its ehight about a 100 years ago after being in existance just after electric power was made more widely available in the late 1880s.  The use of electric power was more economical than using horses. It died off by the 1920s when more people owned their own automobile.  This was just a natural choice on the part of consumers to favor a more trechnically advanced and superior transportation choice.  There was no conspiracy by automobile companies. 

My point was that 100 years ago people walked away from rail transportation way before much better modern choices existed from a century of autmobile and other transportation  imporvements. This is a clear case of technical progress over a century ago that did not favor rail transporation. 

Today any passneger rail system is extermly heavily subsidized by government which is why state goverenments want no part of paying for the never-ending increase in cost of rail transportation for the benefit of relativley few people that use intercity rail transportation.  There are just too many better and cheaper transportation choices that do not require heavy government subsidy. 

Mike Evans
7 years 10 months ago
One can clearly see the tea baggers signing on to debunk any logical discussion of high speed rail, tax policy and National media supports. Please read the materials produced by the US High Speed Rail Assn., the many supporters of public radio and television, and the depth of reports from many sources on tax policy. We have an artificial and planned crisis which the selfish and stubborn are suborning to their own ends.
7 years 10 months ago
I am not a Republican, and agree with them on almost nothing. But as a former GAO auditor with some experience in evaluating transportation systems, I think they are right to doubt the wisdom of most proposed new passenger rail systems. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains operate in a densely populated urban corridor. The cities they serve have very good public transportation, so it's not necessary to rent a  car when you get  there. THey require a large public subsidy but it's worth it because  riders don't use the Region's  highways and airports. And it would e a good idea to spend money on improving the Northeast Corridor rail system, as well as the nation's freight rail systems.   But the passenger rail projects mentioned in your editorial (with the possible exception of California) would serve areas  less densely populated than the Northeast, so their potential ridership is limited. In the Florida case, the project links two cities which are an hour and a half drive apart. Noo one flies between the two cities.Neither city has public transportation comparable to the Northeast Corridor, so rail passengers would have to rent a car when they arrived - not hop on the subway at Penn Station. Given the limited ridership potential, the high cost of building and then operating the system would require very large public subsidies. If we want to conserve our budget resources, we should be wary of investing in new passenger rail systems.
Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago
Let's not forget that the nation public debt is 14 trilion dollars.  The new 2012 federal buget proposed by President Obama will require add another $1.6 trillion dollars of fresh barrowing which will make the national debtr at the end of 2012 15.6 trillion dollars.   Currently the United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the totoal annual value of all goods and services is 15 trillion.  So this year the national debt will be about 100% of our GDP for the fiirst time ever

If you have been paying attention to the European soveriegn debt crisis where countries such as Ireland and Greece were no longer able to sell their debt becasue ot their high rate of indebtedness relative to their GDP, you would recognize the dire impacts that too much barrowing has on a nation.  These countires had to be bailed out and even now must offer very high interest payments to do so.  This impact could ruin the United States economy if nations no longer were willing to risk buying our debt securities which economic experts warn could happen.

So spending another $53 billion on fast trains that will run at a loss increases the national debt by another 5+% of a trillion dollars.  - a very useless and unwise economic choice whcih lacks any sense of priority or urgency of controlling our national debt.
David Smith
7 years 10 months ago
John (#12) writes:

"The cities they serve have very good public transportation, so it's not necessary to rent a  car when you get  there."

I hadn't thought of that.  Yes, of course, that's one more excellent reason why passenger rail in Ohio - a state in which no "large" city is more than a fast four-hour drive from any other and in which no large city has either good local transit systems or a heavily centralized population - would be pointless.

The interesting thing in all this is that the federal government and local rail-travel groups have had so much success in pushing these very expensive and pointless projects, and that so many people have taken them seriously - probably simply because the governments have done so.  It shows, I suppose, the power of authority in setting priorities, no matter what common sense might otherwise dictate.  If the king says it, it must be true.
Tom Maher
7 years 10 months ago
Dave (#4 and #14)

Dave, Dave, Dave. 

You are as sharp as a tack in your analysis of the pointlessness of high speed rail transportation.  You have the merits of the argument down cold and rightly conclude that this fast train proposal does not make sense. 

 You say "I don't know who pushes these rail projects, or why."
Here you pull a "Little Red Riding Hood" on us.  You remember the nursery story of the little girl who goes to her Grandma's house in the woods where she thinks she talking to her grandma  but  is instead talking to the wolf who is in grandma's bed and dressed up as Grandma?  The little girl senses something is wrong and makes a series of observations that are 100% correct about the wolf such as "Oh grandma what big eyes you have." etc but somehow just can  conclude that this is not Grandma and further this thing in Grandma's bed with the big eyes, big snout  and big teeth has all the characteristics of the wolf which everyone knows your supposed to be on the lookout for the wolf when you are in the woods.

In the woods of patronage politcs who benefits by pretending to be Grandma?
7 years 10 months ago
It is very typical of current Jesuit thinking to defend  NPR and overlook the "hate speech" and prejudice of NPRs current anf former leaders.  Maybe the editorial staff of America should take a Ignatian retreat to determine if there primary vows are to  Church or the DNC. 
James Richard
7 years 10 months ago
I love NPR and Public Broadcasting Television.

Who didn't benefit from Sesame Street?

Also, they provide the most detailed reporting available and provide vast amounts of information.

They provide up-scale levels of music, theater  and stuff we don't see anywhere else. 

On political issues, they present players from all sides of political spectrum that no other broadcast outlet does.

Heck, the McGlauphlin Group, Inside Washington, etc, have a balanced panel of guest that no other outlet comes close to.

That being said, I believe NPR and Public Broadcasting TV, can stand on their own merits, and the amount the governt cuts from their funding will easily be picked up and exceded by private advertizers, which they in effect do already anyway.



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