For Release Sunday, October 24, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group
While the U.S. stews over how mad its citizens are at government, agonizing over lost jobs and official deficits, Shanghai and China are basking in the warmth of a highly successful World Exposition. It’s been a grand exhibit of culture, ideas and technology from 189 countries and many corporations. Already visited by a record setting 66 million people, this world expo hopes for 70 million before it finally closes next Sunday.
But it’s Shanghai’s intended follow-through that stuns one. No longer just a factory town for exportable goods, the city says it’s poised to pour some $15 billion into bio-pharmaceuticals, new energy, new materials, information technology and high-end manufacturing. “It’s a must model,” Mayor Han Zheng told an international business group last week, “for Shanghai to shift its growth model from investment driven to innovation driven.”
And check the infrastructure. Shanghai boasts one of the planet’s most extensive subway systems — now 268 miles, scheduled to grow to 370 miles by 2015. And this is home to the world’s only “maglev” system, trains hovering just above the tracks and propelled by magnetic force. Passengers are transferred between the airport and downtown at speeds of up to 268 miles an hour.
With all that and lit skyscrapers by the dozens, it’s hard to believe this is the same Shanghai I first visited in 1979, when everyone wore Mao suits, Western visitors were oddities, and the roadways were literal rivers of bicycles interspersed by a few motor vehicles.
So while in Shanghai, what news do I hear about New York, America’s top metro region? It’s that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in the name of saving taxpayer dollars, has sought to pull the plug on the largest and arguably most important public works project underway in America — the second tunnel under the Hudson River, in the planning for 20 years.
It’s true cost projections on the tunnel have nearly doubled to $9 billion since 2005. New Jersey’s expected to pay a third. But bids are currently coming in under budget and the project would create 6,000 jobs in the hard-hit construction industry. Its two tracks would take the ugly crush off seriously overcrowded Jersey-to-Manhattan commuting, adding some $600 million to the region’s yearly economy by enhanced access of Jerseyites to jobs in New York’s prospering pharmaceutical, financial and business sectors.
Plus, if a design change were now made to have the tunnel connect to Penn Station (instead of a dead end under 34th Street), Amtrak could use the tracks to enhance efficiency of its Northeast rail corridor.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is working hard to get Christie to reverse his position or negotiate some compromise on financing. Washington, he can note, is actually putting up an unprecedented $3 billion for the project.
Barack Obama has made history as the first president to urge high-speed rail in America. His initial request was $8 billion — tiny potatoes compared to China’s avowed national goal of $100 billion a year for dozens of high-speed rail lines including 3,000 miles that can handle trains running at 215 miles per hour. And just a fraction, too, of what the Europeans have spent and aim to spend on high-speed rails that serve as vital connectors for business and personal travel.
But like Christie, the Republican candidates for governor in three states selected to get the biggest federal assist for high-speed rail — Wisconsin ($810 million), Ohio ($400 million) and California ($2.25 billion) — are dragging their feet, the New York Times reports. Their complaint: there could be significant state expenses to complete the lines or operate the trains once they go into service.
Are we sticking our heads in the sand, ignoring the immense economic benefits of high-speed rail — the potential, says Secretary LaHood, “to transform transportation in America, much like the Interstate Highway system did under President Eisenhower”? And that at a very time when interest rates for capital borrowing are at an historic low, and unemployment at record post-World War II highs?
The communications director for California’s outgoing governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, notes trenchantly of current GOP candidate Meg Whitman’s opposition to high-speed rail funding: “To say ‘now is not the time’ shows a very narrow vision.”
The reluctant Republican governor candidates should tour the stunning railway pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. It’s a powerful high-tech vision of rapid rails undergirding and advancing the economy of our new and major international competitor. True, China lacks personal liberties or environmental protections to match ours. But the new American patriotism has to look reality in the face: it’s primarily economics, not military power, that will determine the wealth and welfare of nations in this century. It should be intolerable to think we’ll accept second-class status.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is email@example.com.
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