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In The Public Interest: Rail -- Neither Right nor Left but Forward

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I hate to call attention to George Will's latest column in Newsweek -- a psycho-political portrait that seeks to explain why liberals love high-speed rail. But it is actually a pretty instructive read. While Will starts out trying to shine a light on the workings of the progressive mind, he winds up shining a light into his own -- and into the minds of the nation's current crop of rail haters.

To sum up Will's argument, let's quote the man himself: "[T]he real reason for progressives' passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

Got that? Will tells us that backers of rail are "blinded by ideology" in supporting a technology that "was the future two centuries ago." Their motivation? Nothing less than the "modification of (other people's) behavior."

The column raises a few important questions: First, is support for rail really limited to liberals? Second, if it's not, why are people like Will so knee-jerkily (read, ideologically) opposed to pretty much any investment in passenger rail? And third, if the goal of transportation reformers is not world domination and mind control, what exactly is it?

Is rail a liberal/conservative issue?

Rejecting passenger rail on ideological grounds is like rejecting the fork or the screwdriver as technologies that are "too liberal." Passenger rail is a tool -- one that works very well for some purposes in some situations, and less well for others.

Many conservatives get this. William Lind and the folks at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation have long argued that there is nothing inherently conservative about America's car-centered transportation system. Lind writes on the group's home page:

Not every conservative -- not even every libertarian -- believes America's unofficial motto should be "drive or die." There is a long conservative tradition of not wanting to see America reduced to nothing but strip malls, gas stations and pavement.

This is a view that is shared by other conservatives as well. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that a majority of Republicans favor the use of federal and state funds on high-speed rail. Across the pond, Britain's government - led by the Conservative party once headed by Margaret Thatcher -- is moving forward with a $52 billion high-speed rail network for that country, prioritizing the investment even amid general austerity.

Of course, conservatives like William Lind and liberal supporters of transit and rail disagree in important ways about how to build passenger rail -- on issues related to the role of private enterprise and union labor, for example. But both sides see rail as a legitimate transportation choice for America.

So what, then, is George Will going on about?

Knee-jerk opposition to passenger rail is not a conservative-liberal issue, but it is an ideological issue. How else can one explain the self-destructive decisions of politicians like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gov. Rick Scott in Florida to cancel high-speed rail projects in the face of all good sense and the support for those projects of leaders from across the political spectrum in their states?

The folks at The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation chalk up the reflexive hatred of rail transit to the influence of libertarianism. They write:

How is it then that so many prominent conservative voices are violently opposed to public transportation, especially rail? Part of the answer is that many of those "conservatives" are actually libertarians who profess to believe that "drive or die" represents a free market outcome.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The dominance of automobiles and highways is a product of massive government intervention. For decades, government at all levels poured money into roads while taxing competing railways. After World War II, government also established building codes that mandated suburban sprawl. Today, almost everywhere in the country, if a developer wants to build a traditional neighborhood of the type easily served by streetcars, the law won't let him.

This explanation bears some truth, but it actually gives anti-rail "libertarians" too much of a pass. When it comes to defending cars and highways, it's hard to believe that even libertarians buy the "free market" story. That is why you can often find so-called libertarian outfits like the Reason Institute pulling all sorts of intellectual gymnastics to justify the largest government-run infrastructure program of all time -- the Interstate Highway System -- or to argue, against all evidence, that roads somehow "pay for themselves."

There has to be something else fueling the anti-rail forces' fanaticism -- and there is. Will writes:

Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they--unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted--are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Will's column shows that the all-cars-all-the-time strain of "libertarians" have come to see the ability to go anywhere at a moment's notice by car as the supreme American freedom, to which all other societal imperatives -- including the efficient expenditure of public resources, the preservation of healthy, safe and vibrant communities, environmental protection, and even national security -- must bow.

The dangers of Will's brand of thinking are apparent, since it leads us away from viewing transportation decisions as being fundamentally about finding the best way to move people and goods most efficiently at the lowest overall cost to society -- now and in the future -- and instead leads us to evaluate transportation choices on purely ideological grounds, such as which mode of transportation will best cultivate an appropriate love of freedom in the citizenry. It is a way of thinking that equates the simple act of riding a train with submission to government mind control - not too far away from the crackpot assertion of former Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes, who claimed last year that the launch of a bike-sharing program in Denver was part of a United Nations plot that could "threaten our personal freedoms."

What do transportation reformers really want?

No doubt there are a few rabid anti-car zealots on the left side of the political spectrum. But most transportation reformers, liberal or conservative, recognize that cars are useful tools and will be an important -- perhaps even primary -- part of our transportation future going forward.

Our critique -- one that is shared by pro-rail liberals and conservatives -- is that our nation's massive historic investment in highways and suburban sprawl, to the near exclusion of all other forms of transportation and development, has resulted in our nation having more cars (being driven more miles) and more sprawl-style developments than Americans actually desire or that are in the national interest. We see the economic toll imposed by congestion, accidents, fossil fuel dependence, and the need to own and maintain private vehicles. We are concerned about the massive impacts of our transportation system on our air, our water, our landscape and the global climate. And we look down the road at a future in which oil is increasingly scarce, environmental concerns are increasingly pressing, and the cost of building or expanding highways (particularly in congested metropolitan areas) continues to rise. We wonder, given those circumstances, if perhaps there aren't other tools that can better address our transportation challenges.

The large investments President Obama and others are calling for in passenger rail, public transportation and other alternatives -- and the changes many of us seek to make in public policy to encourage the construction of walkable, transit-oriented communities -- result from the need to bring long-overdue balance to our transportation system, including when it comes to correcting our country's woeful neglect of passenger rail. Those investments and policy changes are particularly urgent now, since the challenges America faces at the start of the 21st century are far different from the ones we faced in the mid-20th century.

Will is right about one thing: freedom is an important issue in the transportation debate. Today, our transportation system leaves many Americans less free because they find themselves forced to spend hours stuck in traffic, to pay rising gas prices that support unfriendly regimes abroad, and to keep up with monthly payments on vehicles. Investing in rail, transit and other alternatives will provide more Americans with the real freedom and real transportation choices so many of us crave.

And that's something that both liberal and conservative Americans appreciate.