Peak Oil and Climate Change Suck. High-Speed Rail Can Help.

I recently revisited the War on Terra for AlterNet. This time, in a double-barreled breakdown of the national high-speed rail network gaining ground in America, which is still lamely to last century’s non-renewable resources like cheap gas, SUVs and easy credit.

Sorry suckers, it’s time to face the future of climate change and peak oil. If you’re going to survive it, you’re most likely going to survive it with the help of a national high-speed rail network empowered by renewable resources like solar and wind. You’re welcome.

Can a New High-Speed Rail System Save the American Dream?

Crippled by economic depression and environmental catastrophe, the American dream is dead in the water. And with peak oil hot on its hyperconsuming heels, America is looking for solutions, and it may have found a good one in the form of an ambitious national high-speed rail network that would connect its metropoles and mid-size cities together in green solidarity. Better late than never.

“In the ’20s, the American way of life looked just like Paris,” U.S. High-Speed Rail Association (USHSRA) president Andy Kunz told AlterNet by phone in a wide-ranging interview. (Read the entire interview here.) “Everyone was living in big cities, riding street trains, no one had cars,” he added. “But the oil and auto industries, working hand-in-hand with the government, converted the country away from that system. America wasn’t born with the system we had now. So the American dream as we know it is somewhat of a myth.

From 1945 forward, we built a different America based on sprawl. But the days of plentiful cheap oil are over, so whether we want to change or not, we will be forced to. And America is going to have a tough time adjusting.”

It will be much easier to adjust to the unimaginable economic and environmental crunches coming our way if we launched that system before peak oil smacks us upside the head as early as 2015, according to a recent report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command. And that’s being generous; some would argue that we’ve been experiencing peak oil’s birth pangs for over a decade. Right now, USHSRA’s projected rail network envisions functional regional high-speed networks in California, the Pacific Northwest, Northeast and Great Lakes region by 2015, and then a complete national system by 2030. But there’s no time to waste.

“If everyone sat down and took a good look at what the military’s report means for our nation and its economy, they’d be in emergency mode, searching for a transportation infrastructure no longer dependent on oil,” explained Kunz. “A national rail system powered by electricity, wind and solar is going to be the only thing that will make a massive difference. You could have transportation forever.”

But before America can work its way toward that sustainable transportation future, it has to pull some thick-headed anachronists out of the past. After the 2010 midterm elections ushered new politicians into the volatile electoral mix, two incoming Republican governors — Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich, respectively — killed their state’s high-speed rail projects, and the millions of dollars and thousands of jobs that went along with them.

The same lame scenario is playing out right now in Florida, whose governor-elect Rick Scott is jeopardizing billions of stimulus dollars and much-needed jobs for no good reason, despite the fact that his state is the closest to making high-speed rail a sustainable reality.

“As a state, California is further along, in terms of having a comprehensive plan,” Kunz said. “But when it comes to shovel-ready projects, Florida is further along. That project is basically ready to go out to bid. The hold-up is the new governor.”

Despite these politicized setbacks, U.S. high-speed rail is attracting attention and potential investment from China and Japan, as well as multinational corporations looking to take an A-train to increased ridership and the profits it will bring. But until Florida gets its proverbial ass in gear, California is leaving everyone else in the dust.

The Case For California

With one progressive eye on alternative energy and another on rebooting the state’s sagging employment, California’s sprawling high-speed rail project is blazing hundreds of green miles to a post-peak oil future. But it’s also taking dumb shots from compromised contrarians, while trying to connect the state’s swollen metropoles, and some of its smaller cities, in hopes of providing Californians a more productive and less toxic transportation atmosphere.


Ready or Not, Our Cheap Oil Economy Is Collapsing and We Need to Embrace High-Speed Rail

U.S. High Speed Rail Association president and CEO Andy Kunz is no stranger to American sprawl and consumption. He was raised in Florida in a household in which every family member had a car and drove miles to get anywhere. But after studying urban planning and witnessing the fearsome waste behind America’s impoverished suburban principles, which have only degraded more as crippling economic depressions and environmental catastrophes have taken hold, Kunz decided to evangelize high-speed rail as an oil-free solution to America’s disastrous transportation. We talked by phone about high-speed rail’s limitless promise, fossil fuel’s forsaken future and transforming our current nightmare of American hyperconsumption and transportation back to its productive pre-WWII dream state.

Scott Thill: So far, it seems that California is furthest ahead in its plans for building out its high-speed rail infrastructure, with Florida a close second. Is that accurate?

Andy Kunz: Well, I would say as a state California is further along, in terms of having a comprehensive plan. But when it comes to shovel-ready projects, Florida is further along in Tampa and Orlando. That project is basically ready to go out to bid.

ST: So what’s the hold-up?

AK: The hold-up is the new governor coming in and saying, “Maybe we ought to analyze this closer,” or “I don’t want to put tax dollars into it.”

ST: Do you think other states will hedge like that, given the recent midterm elections?

AK: No, I don’t agree with that. There are 50 states in the country, and only two sent back rail money. And one potential governor, Meg Whitman, who ran on killing the project, lost in California. So we had a few people, especially in Wisconsin and Ohio, coming out against it, and I think it’s backfired on them. There have been protests and business leaders mad as hell about canceled $100 million real estate projects that were going to be built near the rail stations. So I think those two governors are going to wish they never came out against rail, because they just killed hundreds of jobs.

In Wisconsin, there was a Spanish rail factory that may end up closing now, because the governor killed the project. In the big picture, oil prices are already rapidly approaching $100 a barrel, and this rail project is the single largest solution to escalating oil prices. So to have a new governor come in and kill the project is going to prove to be a big mistake.

ST: Do you think that will be too late to ameliorate what the U.S. Joint Forces Command is calling a peak oil crunch as early as 2015? How do you think energy politics and climate change might complicate the process?

AK: The two are totally interrelated. And this isn’t a temporary oil crunch. Experts say this is a permanent situation: We’re never going to see $20 barrels of oil again, which is what America as we know it now was built on. When you build an entire nation of highways and suburbia, where people use their cars to do everything, all of a sudden your entire society cracks when oil hits $100 a barrel.

You can’t afford to operate. Big-box retail was built around $20 barrels of oil. Wal-Mart’s whole concept is going to collapse, because it’s based on cheap oil every step of the way. Shipping goods from China is going to change, because the fuel is going to be so expensive that China is no longer a bargain.

In fact, that’s already happening. Manufacturers are now setting up shop in Mexico, to save on transportation costs. We really face an unbelievably serious crisis and I think the military estimates are exactly right. Each year, our population and consumption keep growing, but every year there is less oil available. That’s a serious situation that no one is really facing yet. If everyone sat down and took a good look at what that means for our nation and its economy, they’d be in emergency mode, searching for a transportation infrastructure no longer dependent on oil. Electric rail is it. It’s the only thing we can do to take a huge bite out of our transportation consumption.