» With political figures failing to account for the long-term interests of their constituents, the U.S. continues down its confused path.
The opening of the new $32.5 billion Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link this week marked a significant milestone in the world effort to improve intercity rail systems. Though the development of fast train networks in China has not been without its failings, the connection of the nation’s two largest metropolitan regions — the tenth and nineteenth-largest in the world — is a human achievement of almost unparalleled proportions, especially since it was completed a year earlier than originally planned and just three years after construction began. It comes as the Chinese government celebrates its 90th anniversary.
With ninety daily trains traveling the 819-mile link at average speeds of up to 165 mph, the corridor will likely soon become the most-used high-speed intercity rail connection in the world. Because of safety concerns, the quickest journey between travel endpoints will take 4h48, more than the four hours originally proposed. But that will still be more than twice as fast as the existing trip by train and about as quick as the air trip when including check-in times and the journey to and from the airport. So from the perspective of intercity mobility, the rail link will be a huge improvement. The fact that trains stop in the major cities of Tianjin, Jinan, Xuzhou, Bengu, and Nanjing (among many others) — and that they free up capacity on the older line for freight use — only improves matters.
China is in a stage of its economic progress that makes great works such as this high-speed system more feasible than similar works in more developed countries like the United States. While the comparison between the Beijing-Shanghai link and the New York-Chicago connection is hard not to make — each would serve resident populations of about sixty million along corridors of roughly 1,000 miles — their respective political contexts differentiate them to such a degree that makes them almost impossible to compare.
Some Americans may dismiss the Chinese achievement, suggesting that the system’s construction by a single-party government with authoritarian tendencies makes it in itself suspect. One of the great things about the American political system is that it attempts to respond to the demands of the citizenry. The defeat of several Democratic governors in last fall’s elections reflected on some degree of disenchantment with the Democratic Party in general, but in three cases — Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the GOP’s open opposition to intercity rail projects there clearly played a role in convincing voters, who evidently agreed with the anti-rail sentiment, to throw out Democrats. In some ways, it is a reflection on a successful democracy that the rail projects in those places were cancelled, whatever their technical merit.
Yet the completion of China’s longest high-speed line should raise questions in the minds of Americans about whether our particular political and economic system is most fit to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.
The United States, celebrating its own 235th anniversary, has in many ways yet to escape the doldrums of the recession. But unlike China, whose government moved forward quickly to invest in its economy in response to investor insecurity, the U.S. has been characterized by a pile-up of political figures grounding their schizophrenic decision-making in paranoia over the role of government and a general distaste for definitive action on anything.
This week’s endorsement of the Central Florida SunRail commuter train project by Governor Rick Scott (R) was a reflection of American democracy at its worse. Having complained of budget deficits and scorned off federal intercity rail funds for a fast train to link Tampa and Orlando that would have likely cost the state no money, Mr. Scott has given his go-ahead to a project whose primary beneficiary will be CSX, the freight rail operator, and whose costs to the state will run up the tab into the hundreds of millions of dollars — with few public benefits. The SunRail service will operate every 30 minutes at peak hours and every two hours during the middle of the day, at least at the beginning of operations. Future operations improvements lack funding.
The commuter line’s first phase was approved by the Federal Transit Administration in 2009 for New Starts funding because of years of influential lobbying by similarly debt-obsessed Congressman John Mica (R) despite considerable objections from the U.S. government over its cost effectiveness; it was arguably the most expensive per rider of any project approved that year. The project will serve an estimated 4,300 riders a day at a final cost of $1.2 billion, $432 million of which will be handed directly over to CSX for the purchase of its line.* This amounts to a state subsidy for a private corporation, in direct contrast to the high-speed rail line, which was attracting offers of hundreds of millions of dollars from private groups that saw operating profits on the horizon.
This in a country where even the head of the supposedly progressive party claims, just like the Republican opposition, that the best way to soothe the country’s economic woes is to reduce government spending. And meanwhile, expensive projects with only a minor impact on mobility or accessibility somehow make their way forward. Ideological consistency appears not to be an American strongpoint.
Americans cannot raise their hands in dispair, brushing off the successes of Chinese dictatorship as simply the consequence of a lack of democracy. The U.S. political system’s failures to adapt to contemporary needs are no fault of democratic practice.
Indeed, China was not alone in moving forward with fast train systems last week. The French railroads authority approved the first phase of the Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line, which will run 190 miles from Tours to Bordeaux and decrease travel times from Paris to Bordeaux from three hours to 2h05 in 2017. The program is the largest public-private partnership ever signed in Europe and will cost a total of $11.3 billion, half of which will be covered by a group of private firms expected to pay off their initial capital expenses with fifty years of operating profits. In case the point was not clear, France is a perfectly democratic place; the project underwent ten years of studies before being approved for funding, including a significant round of public forums on the scheme. The program was approved by a succession of political leaders who were elected to their posts.
Thus it is not democracy in itself that makes it difficult to envision projects similar to the Beijing-Shanghai line being completed in the U.S., but rather our particular brand of democracy. Its short political term lengths, reliance on two center to center-right political parties, overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups in the legislative process, strong state governance, and weak local and state revenue production capabilities too often result in indecision, half-hearted solutions, and reckless governing logic that focuses on short-term wins more than long-term considerations. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the Chinese governance system, where most decisions are factored into a multi-decade conception for the country’s future by state master planners who seem to know what they’re doing. Do we?
What is the appropriate response to this problem? We can speculate away, but what is obvious is that American political support for specific investments in projects such as commuter trains or high-speed rail lines is haphazard at best and dangerously wasteful at worst. This is no way to run a country.
* The funds will allow SunRail to use the corridor during the day, but CSX will still be able to run freight trains on the corridor at night, potentially making maintenance of the line more difficult. This includes a completely out of proportion $200 million insurance policy that the state is paying to CSX to use the tracks. In addition, the funds provide tens millions of dollars to CSX to upgrade an adjacent line.
Image above: Shanghai Hongqiao station, from Flickr user triplefivechina (cc)