Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Commuter's Eye View Of The Politics of Mass Transit

If you want to feel embarrassed to live in America, take a trip to Germany and ride its rail system.  The trains are clean, safe, speedy, efficient, timely, and go to just about anywhere you would want to be.  Contrast that with the American train system.  Regular delays, train cars left over from the 1970s, limited options, and periodic crashes and accidents that could be easily preventable.  Instead of subsidizing mass transit, Congress has gutted it. 

Things aren’t any better on the state level.  I rely on New Jersey Transit to get to work in New York City every day, like hundreds of thousands of others who will now be facing major fare hikes brought by Chris Christie, the same man who squashed a second tunnel beneath the Hudson. Now I hear that tracks in the main tunnel will have to be shut down to repair Sandy damage, meaning that I will soon be paying more money for a much shittier service. 

This is all happening despite the fact that New Jersey’s economy is dependent on its  transit links to New York, and also that the state has the second lowest gas tax in the country.  Just like on the national level, mass transit is neglected in favor of the automobile.  This is being done despite the contributions of cars to the greenhouse effect, the cost of expanding highways, and the high number of traffic fatalities.

I am increasingly convinced that our mass transit policy is the result of a kind of social insanity.  Conservative politicians want to privatize Amtrak, effectively stripping it of all subsidies, saying that its cross country rail service does not “turn a profit.”  That is an absurd statement when made in context of the billions and billions of dollars spent every year on highway construction and maintenance.  Those highways have gutted neighborhoods in our cities, spew pollution, and see thousands die each year in automotive carnage.  On what planet is the war on mass transit not a horribly stupid thing?

There are a lot explanations for “American exceptionalism” when it comes to our nation’s failure to maintain a proper passenger rail system.  On some level I don’t this has anything to do with a cultural preference for cars over trains, since trains keep places like New York City viable, cultural preferences or not.  No, this is the result of our nation’s tragic adherence to an outmoded federalist constitutional model.  Having a robust train system, especially in the Northeast, is very much in the national interest.  However, it is not in the interest of a great number of the states.  There are over ten million people who live in the New York City area, but states like Wyoming, Nevada, Alaska, the Dakotas, Montana, and a few others could all be added up and still not equal the Tri-State Area’s population.  All of those states each get two Senators, despite that discrepancy.  That’s the reason why New Jersey’s tax dollars go to fund highways through the middle of nowhere, but not improved rail connections to America’s biggest metropolis and the world’s economic capital.  I doubt that the situation will change, since this country is devoted to its original flawed, outdated Constitution, no matter how badly it fails.


Anonymous said...

Adam Gopnik, writing for the NewYorker:

What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Here is the link for The Plot Against Trains: