Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Our Archaic Transportation System

The United States prides itself in being a technologically advanced country, a leader in the technology revolution, and yet our transportation system is archaic.  It is based primarily on a mode of transportation … the car and truck … that was developed a century ago and that technologically has not progressed much in the intervening years.  And it is based on the use of a fuel which has been recognized as causing the coming disaster of climate change.  

It is inefficient and not user-friendly.  For example, despite the vastness of the NJ turnpike, during the extended rush “hour” it is a slog.  And on a recent trip back from the city to Philadelphia, the 17 mile trip from the Verrazano Narrows bridge to the Goethels Bridge took 2 hours!  A huge traffic backup caused by a lane closure.

To the extent that we have a passenger rail system, it too is outmoded and archaic, both as regards the equipment and the infrastructure.  The technological advances made and implemented in western Europe and other countries with advanced, efficient rail systems put us to shame.  (I can’t speak to the quality of the freight system.)

Our air travel system also is caught in this technologically archaic vise.  Air travel makes sense for long flights … say 800 miles or more.  But for shorter flights, it is both terribly inefficient and not user friendly.  By the time you factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, be there the suggested amount of time prior to flight for security and other reasons, and then getting from the airport into the city you’re traveling to, the fact that the actual flying time may be short is irrelevant.  The total amount of time spent and the discomfort experienced is far greater than it would be using regional transportation on an up-to-date high speed rail system.  But that system doesn’t exist.

Why is our transportation system, a vital part of our future economic competitiveness and our national security, in this sad shape?  There are two reasons, one causing technological backwardness in this area.  The other results in the outdated infrastructure.

The reason why our transportation system is technologically archaic is that the powers/corporations behind the old technology are extremely powerful.  Basically, we’re talking about big oil.  Big oil has for decades not wanted electric cars to be developed (when technologically they easily could) and big oil has not wanted an efficient rail system that would compete with cars for carrying people.

But we need both electric cars and an efficient rail system.  Trains need to carry much more of the regional traffic and cars should be used primarily for local purposes and getting to transportation hubs.

It’s no secret that in our governmental system, power resides with the major corporations who lobby Congress and who contribute heavily to campaigns.  There simply exists no countervailing corporate force for changing our archaic transportation system.

The reason why our infrastructure is outdated is said to be that we just don’t have the money.  But that’s not true.  The problem is that the money is going for other things, primarily defense.  Now defense is important, but a large chunk of that huge budget does not advance our security; it only advances the corporate welfare, and yes, also jobs, in the defense industry, which is very powerful.

So again, it’s a question of the power lying with corporations who have a vested interest and there being no countervailing corporate force for changing the way the budget is allocated.

A reader might counter that to change our system would be hugely dislocating for everyone and would harm us.  While it would be somewhat dislocating, I don’t think it would be hugely so for the average person and more importantly it is necessary for our national survival and competitiveness in the future.

Another counter argument is that if we shift money from the defense industry it will cost lots of jobs and people will suffer.  While again there would be dislocation, the shift of funds into infrastructure projects will create a huge number of jobs which will provide ample employment for not only those who lose their jobs as a result of the cutback in defense spending but also for many who are currently un- or underemployed.

Interestingly, these same arguments were not successful when corporate power was on the side of technology or globalization rather than the ones who were being dislocated.  It all comes down to who has the ear of Congress.

Our future economic competitiveness and national security depend on all aspects of our infrastructure being technologically advanced and in top condition.  We have a long way to catch up on both fronts.  The patriotic and sensible thing to do would be to start on both these projects ASAP.