It Takes a Train to Cry

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In my mid-twenties I moved to California sight unseen. I bought a one-way plane ticket from Boston to San Diego and never looked back. The first time I drove across the country was west-to-east, against the grain of American history.

I drove alone in a car full of cassette tapes and assorted belongings. I stayed with friends in Tucson the first night, in a hotel in Albuquerque the second, and in the car for a few hours at a rest area in Kansas the third. My fourth day of driving brought me to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch, and the Museum of Westward Expansion.

I almost cried when I saw the wooden wagon wheels and the displays of deprivation endured by those early travelers. Like me, they had gone to California on a promise and a prayer. Unlike me, they could not get on an Interstate Highway and reel it all back. In those days, going West was a lifetime commitment – if you made it across the prairies, the mountains and the deserts. Many people didn’t.

The Interstate Highway System was born when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The system encompasses some 47,000 miles of limited-access divided highway across the United States. Construction costs over 40 years were estimated at approximately $128 billion. Ninety percent of the funding – nearly $119 billion – came from the federal government.

State and federal spending on the Interstate System didn’t stop with construction, of course. Roads need to be maintained, aging bridges need to be periodically replaced, signage needs to be updated, and so on. One estimate puts the cost of the Interstate system over the next fifty years at $2.5 trillion.

Looked at one way, the Interstates opened the country to increased commerce and freedom of mobility for the average car-owning American. They made it possible to buy fresh California avocados in Maine, and to take in the Grand Canyon, the James A. Garfield homestead in Ohio, and Niagara Falls on the same road trip, as I did with my kids many years ago. They have made driving marginally safer, though vehicle accidents still claim more than 30,000 American lives a year.

Looked at another way, the Interstates constitute a massive taxpayer subsidy to the automobile and trucking industries. The money spent on the Interstates dwarfs the federal subsidy for Amtrak, a favorite target of fiscal conservatives in Congress. Over its 44-year existence, the national train service has received less than $1 billion per year in federal subsidies – a lot of money, to be sure, but a drop in the bucket next to government largesse for highways, trucks and cars.

This bias toward cars and against public transportation can be observed almost anywhere you go in the United States. Here in Bangor, the Interstate cuts through a graveyard and diverts commerce from the downtown to outlying areas like the mall and outer Hammond Street, while a vacated hardware store sits idly on the site of the old train station. Talk of restoring passenger train service to Bangor is dismissed as a pipe dream by some of the same people who want to see an east-west highway strung across northern Maine along the route of an existing rail line. And modest spending to extend bus hours into the evening meets with resistance from people who have no problem spending much more money to build additional parking facilities.

I see two lessons here.

The first is that public spending priorities influence private behavior. The more roads you build while eviscerating public transportation, the more people will conclude that driving is the more convenient option. Of course it is, because your government has, for at least the past half-century, cleared stones from the paths of drivers while erecting obstacles for bus and train passengers.

The second is that transportation is not supposed to pay for itself. It’s a public service, whether in the form of road construction and maintenance, or reliable and dependable train service. Both are essential to a country’s economy. Trains can move freight – and people – much less expensively than cars and trucks can. But fifty years of conditioning have caused us to view cars as normal and necessary, and trains and buses as subsidized services that only serve a minority.

Again, I’m not saying that we should dismantle the Interstates or let them fall into decay. But we could all benefit from a more balanced approach to transportation, one that doesn’t keep putting the bulk of our eggs into the most expensive basket.

 

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