Ideas: Fixing the World July/August 2009

Train Detroit

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Fans of high-speed rail seem to be in two camps about the Obama administration’s plan to give states a record $8 billion in federal stimulus money to develop fast trains. After eight years of willful train-neglect under President Bush, most are grateful for any resources they can get. But some predict the relative chump change—AIG and Citibank got 55 times as much, roughly $460 billion—will be diluted across so many fledgling rail projects that no state will end up with a top-of-the-line system that could provide thousands of new jobs and an envy-inducing model for America. Even completing one desirable high-speed project, the 800-mile north-south California route, is likely to cost $45 billion.

Instead of scattering nickels and dimes across dozens of states, a better idea would be to increase the train fund at least tenfold so America can have at least one legitimate high-speed rail line like Spain’s Madrid-to-Seville train, which runs at 186 mph (Amtrak averages only 79 nationwide). And let this man-on-the-moon project start in Detroit.

Yes, Detroit. The city that was once part of FDR’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” for its part in retooling auto plants to make World War II tanks and bombers, has easily a dozen empty auto plants that could be making train engines and train cars.

In Flint, Michigan, United Auto Workers Local 651 President Art Reyes says Plant Six at the Delphi Flint East site, which once made air filters and has been idle since September 2008, offers 500,000 square feet, 45-foot ceilings, 26-inch-thick concrete floors, fiber-optic wiring, and, conveniently, a rail line.

“I have a workforce of 900 that’s been downsized from 9,000,” says Reyes, “but every one of them is computer-literate and ready for cutting-edge, green-technology stuff, whether it’s wind turbines, next-generation auto batteries, or rail. We’re hungry for work.”

Of course, railroads helping to rescue Detroit would be sweet irony. It was General Motors, after all—in cahoots with a number of other companies—that set out to cripple mass transit in America, including the electric streetcars that once trundled through Detroit and Flint.

Bruce Selcraig, a former Senate investigator and Sports Illustrated writer, is a journalist in Austin, Texas.
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