For those of you who are new to this conversation, the issue of a bottom-up, decentralized rebuilding of America has been a regular issue. We are calling it The New Federalism and you can catch up by entering that phrase into this blog’s search engine. In the past, projects like the Interstate Highway System, the invention of real time computing and the Internet, have all been decentralized massive development efforts funded by the tax payers in cooperation with both business and academia. It is my contention that the only way out of the “hollowed-out economy” trap we have put ourselves in is through a massive, decentralized public-private effort at making our economy much more energy efficient. In late February we talked about the possibilities in Solar and wind energy and more importantly the storage of electricity.
Today I want to float another idea–in the transportation sector. In the last ten days, four commuter airlines have gone bankrupt because of the cost of fuel. Compared to Europe, Japan, China and Korea our commuter transportation system is wildly inefficient because we use small jets instead of high speed rail.
Last year a Japanese Mag-Lev train (above) set a world speed record at 581 KM/H. Looking at the population density map of the United States (Top picture) you can obviously see several regions where this kind of city to city high speed link would be far superior to the current commuter airline system: Boston-New York Washington;Raleigh Durham-Charlotte-Atlanta-Nashville-Memphis-St Louis;Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit-Indianapolis-Chicago-Milwaukee-Minneapolis;Dallas-Houston-San Antonio; San Diego-Los Angeles-San Jose-San Francisco-Portland-Washington. These also happen to be the routes with the majority of commuter air traffic (map below)
Assuming that we could agree that high speed electrical powered rail was both more efficient and much less polluting–and at 400 MPH city center to city center–more time efficient; then how could we undertake a massive project to build such a system in America? Clearly we have manufacturing giants like GE and GM already with idle factories that know how to build large infrastructure. GE builds both diesel and jet engines. GM builds bus bodies (not so different from rail cars). But if we said that any world firm could bid for the business, as long as they built it in the US we would not be protectionist. Needless to say, we have a huge underemployed work force that knows how to build transportation equipment. We would also have to undertake a massive rebuilding of the railroad bed for high speed trains and that would employ a lot of underemployed construction workers.
I don’t pretend to know what role taxpayer dollars would play in this situation. It seems to me the various regions might have different approaches though I believe a tax on gasoline that brought us a little closer to European and Asian gas prices (so they would have no competitive advantage) would both pay for the system and send market signals to auto buyers to get more efficient cars. I know the libertarians are going to scream about this post. But the invisible hand of the market has not induced any efficiency in the American oil consumption in 30 years. Now we are shocked that the combination of the weak dollar and rising Asian demand is forcing us to confront reality. This is just one suggestion of the kind of confident project, like Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System that could galvinize an Alternative Energy Business where we could become the world leader.