Is the Acela Killing America?

Has the finance industry trainjacked America?

By all accounts the Acela has been a success. Thought it is far from perfect and constitutes moderate speed rail for the most part, it seems to have attracted strong ridership. A midday train was totally packed on both the BOS-NYC leg and NYC-DC leg the last time I rode it. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere. Which is pretty amazing given how much more expensive it is than the regional, and frankly not that much faster. It does seem to have accomplished its mission of more closely linking Boston, New York, and Washington.

The question is, is that actually a good thing? Or has the improved connectivity the Acela brings had unforeseen negative consequences? I believe you can make an argument that the Acela has actually helped birth the stranglehold the finance industry has over federal fiscal and monetary policies, and thus has hurt America.

I don’t have time to fully develop that here, but to anyone who has been following any of the many excellent sites tracking the financial crisis over the last few years, it is obvious.

There is now a near merger between Wall Street and K Street. During the financial crisis, the government and the Fed have kept Wall Street well supplied with bailouts and nearly free access to capital that allows them to literally print risk free profits by recycling in the free loans into interest bearing government debt, all while Main St. businesses and homeowners have borne the full brunt of a credit crunch, state and local governments fiscally starve, and infrastructure funds dry up. Finance industry insiders have now obtained a near lock on the position of Treasury Secretary. When a president like Bush dares to appoint someone with actual industrial experience, Wall Street’s displeasure is made manifest, and it generally succeeds in undermining him. New laws like Dodd-Frank strangle new entrants to the field while enshrining the privileged status of the too big to fail. The fact that it allows government to seize these “systematically important financial institutions” shows not the industry’s weakness but its strength, as big banks de facto function as instrumentalities of the state, but with profits privatized and losses socialized. Not a single major figure in the events causing the financial meltdowns has gone to jail or even been prosecuted (only a collection of ponzi schemers and insider traders who, despite their criminality, had no systematic impact – the crisis blew up their scams, their scams did not cause the crisis). The list goes on.

The geographic proximity of New York to Washington, with quick trips back and forth on the Acela, facilitates this. Clearly, you could get back and forth on the shuttle without it, but given the Acela’s popularity, it does seem to have some big benefits in shrinking the distance between New York and DC. I’d argue this has been unhealthy for America. If true high speed rail ever came to the NYC-DC corridor, who knows what might happen?

Perhaps you don’t agree and will feed me to the dogs for this post. But I think it’s very clear that transportation networks have vast impact on the structure of society, not just how people and goods get from Point A to Point B. The interstate highway system is proof of that. Indeed, advocates of high speed rail (and I’ve been a qualified one myself, supporting it clearly in the Northeast Corridor but being skeptical about most others) boast of the positive transformational effects of HSR as one of the reasons to build it. But as with the interstate highway system, we need to be aware of the hidden risks as well.

The Acela is perhaps living proof that high speed rail can reshape America. It is literally helping rewrite the geographic power map of America. Unfortunately, at this point don’t think that’s been a good thing.

This piece originally appeared at The Ubanophile.