[Note from Martin: This is not the "bash Republicans" thread. Please keep the discussion on high speed rail and subsidies for other modes of transport.]
The Republicans are very keen on scrapping Obama’s high speed rail initiative, but I think there’s a fairly solid conservative argument in its favor.
First, air travel is not successful as a result of the free-market. For starters, no airline has ever built an airport. Every commercial passenger airport in the US was built with public money, and the Federal Aviation Administration still gives out $3.4 billion in airport construction grants annually, in addition to paying for air traffic control – a subsidy on the order of $7 billion this year. Moreover, most of the development costs for the initial passenger aircrafts’ construction was directly paid for by the defense department, and it still subsidizes aircraft construction – though to not especially successful results.
The Airline industry’s most profitable era was during the existence of the Civil Aeronautics Board from 1940 to 1984. During that time, the CAB set ticket prices and assigned specific airlines to specific routes. Since deregulation started in 1978, most major domestic carriers have gone bankrupt along with hundreds of smaller ones. Even post-deregulation, the Airline Industry received an $18.6 billion bailout in 2001. Not exactly a free-market result.
A similar story can be told for highways (never mind the recent bailouts for the large auto-makers), but there’s not really a point digging into it here. The highways were built by the government, and subsidized by governments at all levels, that’s obvious. The Federal government has been putting billions into highways since 1920.
Second, high speed rail would encourage Federalism. Most conservatives want the Federal government out of local decision making. Paul Weyrich’s argument for funding guarantees for transit work the same for high speed rail. The High Speed Rail funds the Federal government promised were guaranteed, or would be, if the Republicans would not cut the budget. Playing will-the-Feds-won’t-they game removes power from the local governments and gives it all to the Feds who can remove the funds at a whim.
Third, high speed rail would encourage growth in small towns along the line. An HSR line on the Amtrak Cascades would stop in several smaller cities, and those cities would get a boost in population and development from commuters who would rather live there than live in sprawled-out suburbs or exurbs or would rather take the train than drive. These towns would have a great sense of community and continuity, and could become natural bastions of a certain type of conservatism, though probably not the Scott Walker sort. Depending on land-use patterns around the stations, you might even bring back the “Main Street” of old.
Fourth, high speed rail would improve commerce and the economy. Almost all conservatives agree that enhancing commerce is on the short list of things the government should do. High speed rail would help improve the flow of goods and people across the country, while helping our main national security goal of oil supply safety. High speed rail is certain to create jobs, create housing and boost the economy.
Interestingly, Conservatives in Canada and the UK are behind high-speed rail, while conservatives in America seem to hate nothing more. It’s too bad, because high speed rail could help many of conservatives’ state goals. So they will try and probably succeed in cutting the program, while everyone pretends that
18 40 daily flights from Portland to Seattle is a free-market, pro-conservative outcome.