HIGHWAY OR TRAIN, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: WHAT’S THE AMERICAN WAY?

By Paul M. Lewis

Not long ago, my partner and I were driving to Northern Arizona from our home in Southern California. We go each month to visit with my partner’s mother, who is in hospice care at a nursing home there. It’s usually at least an eight and a half hour drive each way, longer if somebody was texting, or chatting on the cell phone, or otherwise distracted, and so has caused an accident.

For the most part, we try to work it out so as to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic on the freeways, leaving early enough to give ourselves some breathing room. We also tend to take the northern route, heading up Interstate 15 to Barstow, and then taking I-40 east until it meets Arizona state route 89. Taking the I-10 east instead might cut off a few miles, but the 40 is so much more beautiful. It goes through the magnificent Mojave Desert National Preserve in California, and once you’re in Arizona you pass through an enchanting forest of juniper trees.

When there’s a problem on the roads, it’s always in the LA megalopolis. For us, getting to Barstow entails taking the 405 to the 22 to the 55 to the 91 to the 15. Anyone who drives the LA freeways knows what I’m talking about, and for those unfamiliar with these routes, it’s maybe enough to say that they can be torturous. One of the worst places is the intersection of the 91 and the 15, near the Inland Empire town of Corona. That’s because so many people have moved to the southern part of Riverside County, where housing at least once was a lot cheaper, in search of the American dream: a house with 3 or 4 bedrooms, living room, dining room and family room, plus a yard out back with grass where the kids can play and the dog can romp. If you’re lucky, or rich enough, maybe you even have a swimming pool, to boot.

For years, that intersection narrowed down to one lane, and traffic backed up accordingly. On a dark winter’s morning, driving east on the 91 and approaching the 15, you could see a gargantuan necklace of headlights, as cars awaited their turn to get onto the westbound 91. Nowadays, Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) is in the midst of a monster construction project there, involving a multiple lane overpass.

Which is what got me to thinking. The last time we came through there, we were on our way home, and so it was the middle of the afternoon. The behemoth hulk of the half-built overpass was plainly visible, hanging in midair, as workers and machines scrambled over the area following their appointed tasks, ones not necessarily apparent to us passersby. Still, progress was clearly being made, or I guess that’s what it’s called. At least, you could see that more of the road had been completed than when we started our regular treks to Arizona, something like eight months ago.

And no doubt, the folks who use those freeways everyday, commuting back and forth to jobs nearer the coast from communities like Riverside, or Lake Elsinore, or Murrieta, or even as far south as Temecula, will be overjoyed once the work is done. My guess is that things will be better for them, at least for maybe a year or two, until the traffic catches up with the improvements—as it always does—and we’re back once again looking at what will then be a double, or even a triple-line, necklace of headlights.

The Caltrans budget for the current 2015-16 year is 10.5 billion dollars, an almost 2 billion dollar, or 11.9%, increase over that of the previous year. Even though this represents less than 10% of the state’s overall budget of about $113 billion, it is still a lot of money. Though some might say even that’s not enough. After all, without our freeways, how would people get to work, how would goods and services be moved, how would anyone get anywhere, for any reason? But remember this, too, that the ten billion plus dollars spent by the state on Caltrans this year represents only a tiny fraction of the amount spent over the years on the building of this kind of infrastructure. In other words, that ten billion is the cost for maintenance, and some isolated construction projects, on a system that basically already exists.

What has occurred to me many times, as we drive through that interchange between the 91 and the 15—or any other you may care to name—is why did we never invest the same monumental sums of money into rail connections? In my freeway-smog addled mind’s eye, I imagine my partner and me, for example, sitting comfortably in a bullet train, heading east out of downtown Los Angeles straight to Phoenix. Then, after relaxing for a short wait in a beautifully appointed train station there, we would take another line north from Phoenix to Prescott (our final destination); or, if it had to go to Flagstaff first, then from there on a smaller branch line down to Prescott. This same kind of convenient train travel could of course be reproduced in all fifty states. But that is not what we have. What trains are available are hardly convenient. Years ago, we took a train trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. It was supposed to leave LA at noon, and arrive in Seattle at 8:00 PM the following evening. Instead, it left at 4:00 PM and arrived at 3:00 o’clock in the morning two days later. Does that instill confidence in getting from place to place on time, to say nothing of comfortably? This huge delay happened mostly because there is, for the most part, only one train track between these two major west coast cities, and freight trains often take the right-of-way. It’s not supposed to be like that, but the freight carriers far prefer to pay the relative pittance of a fine for not giving way to a passenger train, and so slowing down their own operations.

If the government—and of course the people who elect their representatives—made train travel a priority, we could have made that same journey in a matter of hours, not days. Just as Europeans do on their trains, or the Japanese, or nowadays even the Chinese. The travel time, for example, between Paris and Marseille—a journey of approximately 775 miles—takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, France’s version of the bullet train). You leave from central Paris and arrive in central Marseille. No need to bother with highways, airports, or parking, or sitting in traffic. You can read, chat with your fellow passengers, or just sit and look out the window. And all this for about 25 euros, just over $28 US dollars, according to the current exchange rate. Is that what it costs to actually operate these state-of-the-art trains? Probably not, but the government is willing to subsidize the cost, and so are the French people. By contrast, the distance between Los Angeles and Phoenix is about 365 miles. The Amtrak ticket costs $100 more than the ticket between Paris and Marseille, and it is estimated that the trip will take over 10 hours. In other words, it would cost 4 times as much, and take more than 3 times as long, for my partner and me to go half the distance. And we would still have to either rent a car in Phoenix to get to Prescott (a two hour drive), or get ourselves to the airport there to pick up the shuttle van.

Why would we ever do that? Indeed, why would anyone take a train in the United States, when travel by car is so much faster, cheaper, and more convenient? The answer obviously is almost no one. But what is behind these questions may be more interesting. One estimate of the cost of building the interstate system is that it takes approximately $1 million for every mile of highway built. Using that estimate, and multiplying it by the almost 48,000 miles of interstate highways we have in this country, we come to the mind-blowing total of approximately $48,000,000,000. To put it in words, because most of us are not used to seeing that many zeros after any number, that is forty-eight trillion dollars. Naturally, the money was spent to build these roads over the course of many decades. Still, by way of comparison, the entire US GDP, the Gross Domestic Product (i.e., the cost of all goods and services produced in the country in a given year) is projected to be just under $18 trillion dollars for 2016.

I learned a long time ago, working for many years at universities, that budgeting is always a matter of deciding on priorities. When my boss told me I could not hire an adviser I thought we needed, but I learned later that another office was able to, it was clear that that other office had a higher priority in the hierarchy of what was considered important at the university. Each of us does the same thing with our own household budgets. New car? Well, maybe not this year. Maybe it’s best to get the roof fixed, or pay down that outrageous credit card bill.

Although admittedly far more complex, the basic principle is the same when it comes to countries. Money is ultimately put where you, the taxpayer (via your representatives), want it to go. And Americans want their cars, and their highways. We want to be able to go out our front door, jump into our automobile, and hit the open road. Or that’s the fantasy, at least. We’re rugged individualists; we want independence, free choice; we want to go where we want, when we want, and to be able to stop whenever it’s convenient. Leave the trains—those giant conveyor belts of groups of people—to the socialists in Europe, or the communists in China. So, don’t look for a diminishing of car travel any time soon in this country. California has been attempting to build a bullet train between LA and San Francisco for several years now, but with all of the court challenges against it, the project has just barely begun. And even if and when it is completed, it will be required to run without state subsidy.

In the end, we get what we pay for. Americans have always wanted what we think of as our freedom of movement: the car in the garage ready to whisk us off whenever we choose either to work, or to school, or to an enchanting land of adventure. But along with this comes packed freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, huge costs, and polluted skies. If that is what we want, then that’s what we’ve got. And if anybody prefers a nice train ride, swift, clean, reliable and cheap, well, they’d just better take a trip to Paris to find it.

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