Going Nowhere Fast

To get America back on the right road, I wish Henry Clay's Whig Party might come back and fix the roads again. Today, we need the "internal improvements" that the Whigs promoted every bit as much as we did in the 1830s and 1840s, when Whig-controlled governments built roadways and canals.

In The History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, Henry Adams makes a fuss about the roads and the rails. For Adams, America only truly became "united" as it became easier to get from place to place, from Boston to New York.

Now it's getting harder. Every week, it seems, it's taking another minute or so to get from point A to point B. Each year it's harder to get from Chicago to St. Louis or Detroit. There's no high-speed rail. It takes longer to get to the airport. In Chicago, it can now take me an hour and a half to get out to O'Hare. It's 35 minutes by bus on Addison Street, and then it's an hour on the El. The Blue Line is broken down for lack of funds and moves 10 mph in the "slow" zones. A fifth of the track is now made up of "slow" zones.

It's not just city to city but home to store. As I write at home this Saturday, it's semi-gridlock for two miles in all directions. For five minutes at a time, no one's moving. The cars pile up for blocks. Every Saturday, even in July, I might as well be snowbound. I can't get out.

I live roughly four miles from my office. If I'm lucky, it only takes me 50 minutes by mass transit to get to work.

The point is we're trapped. We can't move.

America is disuniting. Compare the U.S. to the European Union. Over there, thanks to Eurostar (the high-speed rail system), easy transit to the airports, and Ryanair, Europeans have more geographic mobility than we do. Eurostar is more important to European unity than adopting a new EU constitution. Europeans are voting in a new constitution with their feet. It's getting easier to get from Dublin to Madrid, where Irish kids commute to do start ups. Over there, from Paris up to Brussels, I puff along on air. Over here, on our dilapidated rails, I have to jolt along, in effect, by stage coach.

It seems obvious that we should invest in high-speed rail and mass transit, but we don't. "Certainly," a friend, a business journalist, told me, "we've got the capital here to do something." But do we? As Louis Uchitelle reported in The New York Times a few weeks ago, in a global economy the big U.S. businesses have no stake in shoring up the local infrastructure, either with taxes or their own capital. In New Haven, he noted, the only big business that cares about sweeping the streets is Yale, which isn't going anyplace.

And our government is just about to flare off even more of the tax base in a one-time "stimulus" so people can buy more cars. The more we "stimulate" private spending, the faster the public infrastructure collapses. The harder it becomes even to get to the malls to spend.

As readers know, this magazine has been calling for internal improvements, from, it seems, the time of Henry Clay. The longer The American Prospect publishes, the harder it is just to get to the store. Here's the 2005 U.S. infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers: aviation D+, bridges C, drinking water D-, rails C-, roads D, school buildings D.

So if there's no U.S. private capital, and no U.S. public capital, what's the answer to this U.S. problem? My thought: some way to link this to Kyoto and the sovereign wealth funds. At least the SWFs have the capital to spare. With federal guarantees, they might be willing to take a very modest rate of return and park their money in high-speed rail rather than in hedge funds. It seems a better bet right now, or it would be with the right guarantees.

But China, our $1.4 trillion creditor, should get something more. If it puts its money in high-speed rail or mass transit lines, it should get some kind of Kyoto credit, too. If China or any other SWF helps unite us Americans as a nation and lowers our carbon footprint, it should get some right to run its filthy plants. It's an inconvenient truth that China and other creditors have the capital to keep America from disuniting. Let's hope China, just as it once lent us the labor to help build our railroads, lends us the bankers to bring the railroads back.

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