Dipu Gupta: High-speed rail -- Part of the American ethic

April 25, 2012 

We know what makes cities and regions successful and what makes them decline. The record shows that the following are requirements: stable government, active trade between regions, connectivity between urban areas, and technological advances.

High-speed rail promotes three of these four things. Technology is the most important. Technological advances drive economic activity and make us vastly wealthier.

This already happened with the 19th century rail systems in the U.S. The first railroads so clearly spurred economic activity that a national rail system was an obvious next step. The transcontinental railroads were transformative. Critics of rail were silenced. Not only could people and goods be moved rapidly around the country, but the high-tech diesel engines and advanced metal fabrication for the train-sets were exportable technologies. In the 1940s U.S. trains were the envy of the world. By the 1950s so was our economy.

Critics of California high-speed rail tend to ignore the many benefits of the system. By ignoring the fact that technology drives a successful economy they are depriving California of crucial growth potential. The criticisms tend to fall into one of a number of categories: HSR will cause the loss of farmland, it will increase the state deficit, it is generally unnecessary, and the money could be better spent elsewhere. In fact the opposite is true. High-speed rail will not cause these problems. It will solve them.

Crucial to California's future is the preservation of farmland. If you are serious about this, your first goal should be to encourage growth in our urban centers by supporting high-speed rail. Look at an aerial view of your town and see how much land has been lost to new development. It is far more than the proposed rail lines. Kings County has already lost 15 times more farmland to new development than it would to high-speed rail. A statewide HSR system will encourage smarter growth and protect farmland.

While there is no question about the serious financial trouble that California faces, any proposal to cancel high-speed rail must consider the high cost of doing nothing. We could have saved money by not building the 19th century railroads. We would have then been unable to export technologies, open up productive land, move goods to markets, and connect people and ideas. Wise investment in infrastructure pays for itself many times over.

It is a weak argument to say that HSR is generally unnecessary because the private sector would build it. The private sector did not land on the moon. What we spent on a lunar landing was returned to us many times over in new technologies that surround us today. Space exploration was an investment in high-tech industry and infrastructure. Building infrastructure is one of the things governments do well in the sense that otherwise no one would do them at all.

Critics of HSR say the money could be better spent on other infrastructure. All transportation infrastructure is not the same. High-speed rail infrastructure is productive. Areas around stations increase in value and add revenue to local communities. HSR provides crucial statewide mobility and in direct contrast to highways it discourages sprawl. Highways on the other hand need operating subsidies for routine maintenance.

HSR will create jobs at a time when they are needed. It will pay for itself many times over through mobility, connectivity and economic progress. It will spur a manufacturing base and knowledge economy centered in California. It will let us compete globally in the high-tech sector in which we are naturals. We should use this opportunity to create an advanced rail industry including manufacturing trains and control systems. Because we will be the first HSR system in the U.S., California will have a competitive advantage as other U.S. states and developing nations build rail systems. High-speed rail is part of the American ethic of embracing technology with all of its social and economic benefits. It is long overdue that our trains be once again the envy of the world.

Gupta is a licensed California architect. He teaches architecture and urbanism at UC Merced. The views expressed here are his own. He welcomes comments addressed to dgupta@ucmerced. edu and an expanded version of this article, including citations, sources, and link to further reading appears on his website www.dipugupta.com.

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