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The Official Crumbling Infrastructure Column
Thursday, February 1, 2018 -- Two weeks from today, if the snow doesn't fly and my Norwegian Air Shuttle flight does, I'm off to Italy for my first honest-to-gosh holiday in I can't remember how long.
Save for reviewing Norwegian's Premium Cabin--For $545 one-way with no roundtrip required and decent specs, how bad could it be?--I intend to bounce around Italy footloose, fancy free and mostly untethered from chain hotels, airlines or rental cars.
Which brings me to the topic of today's lesson: infrastructure and how nobody takes it seriously in America.
Not our "Great Builder," President Trump, who once promised a $1 trillion infrastructure plan in the first 100 days of his Administration. During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, more than a year into his Presidency, he still had nothing to offer--and it probably doesn't matter anyway because his Republican "allies" aren't all that interested. Not the Democrats, who didn't do anything for the eight years when President Obama was in office. Not Obama himself, whose "shovel-ready" stimulus after he took office at the beginning of the Great Recession in 2009 yielded little or nothing. Not the Bushes or Clinton or Reagan before him.
Now here is where you'd expect me to summarize the sorry state of the nation's "crumbling infrastructure." (By the way, all of us media types must use "crumbling infrastructure" when discussing our roads, bridges, airports, seaports and railways.) But you don't need me for that. Just read the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Anything and everything related to transportation in this country is broken, about to break and/or being held together with spit, bailing wire and whatever industrial-strength binding agent Trump uses on his hair.
Instead, let me come at it from this angle. Italy is known for many things, but it has been an economic and financial basket case for decades. Yet even Italy has managed to upgrade its national infrastructure, especially trains.
From Rome, I'll take the Frecciabianca train to Genoa. The "White Arrow" is the slowest of Italy's new trains and it needs 4 hours and 50 minutes to cover the 310 or so miles from the Italian capital to its largest seaport. On the back end, I'll use the Frecciarossa 1000, Italy's fastest train. The "Red Arrow 1000" does the 233 miles to Rome from Bologna, Italy's culinary heart, in just 1 hour and 54 minutes. The walk-up business class fare? About $88 one-way.
Compare that to the New York-Washington run, which is 226 miles and uses the Acela, Amtrak's fastest train. The Acela requires 2 hours and 53 minutes to traverse about the same distance that the Red Arrow 1000 covers an hour faster. Acela's walk-up business class fare? Around $220 one-way. If you want to save a few dollars, you can take the slower Northeast Regional train, of course. That requires 3 hours and 30 minutes and you'll still pay $120, 36 percent more than the Red Arrow 1000.
Or how about that pokey 5-hour ride to Genoa on the White Arrow? For Amtrak to do a similar run--about the distance from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia--you will need 6 hours and 40 minutes. You'll pay for the privilege of going slower on Amtrak, too. A business class Amtrak seat tomorrow will cost you $215 compared to a $110 walk-up first class seat on the White Arrow.
Charlottesville ring a bell? It should. That's where a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican Congressmen on a post-State of the Union trip Wednesday slammed into a garbage truck on the tracks. One person is dead and another is still in critical condition.
Know what's infuriating about the incident? In 1999, a CSX freight train had a collision with a motor vehicle at the same intersection.
We're not only not investing in infrastructure, we're not even learning the lessons of the crashes that result from our slow and outdated infrastructure. Let's not even get into the tragedy in Washington State in December on the first day of service of an allegedly "high speed" (80 miles per hour) new route. Or the chaos that has been the Brightline in Florida.
Besides, we can't even talk about airports because we don't build 'em. The last one of any note was Denver International, opened 23 years ago to replace Stapleton. It's why we have to make a big deal when a little reliever airport like Paine Field north of Seattle opens a few gates to the public. LAX is overflowing, New York's airports are a mess. O'Hare and Midway in Chicago? Ugh. Washington/National, gateway to the capital, has for years subjected business travelers to the horrors of Gate 35X. It'll be years more before even the modest fix to that situation opens.
Please notice that I haven't brought up China. It has underwritten the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history and backed it with trillions of dollars in spending on roads, ports, railroads and airports. But even while we watch our politicians balk at a couple of hundred million in federal spending to underwrite Trump's imaginary $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, we should not make specious comparisons to China. It is a repressive state that takes what it wants. It ruthlessly relocates tens of millions of people. It is opaque and arbitrary on where and how its spends on infrastructure.
China is no model for us.
But we have no model at all. And no national desire to even think about creating one.
You think about that as I make plans to hurtle down the rails from Bologna to Rome at upwards of 250 miles per hour on tracks and trains built just five years ago in a country that has a fraction of our open space and a smidgen of our financial wherewithal.
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