Category Archives: Government

Father Knows Best

20151101-freedom-from-wantIn wake of the presidential election, lots of think-piece articles are flowing around social media saying that “elite” coastal liberals  should empathize with and respect the opinions of rural white Trump voters. Having grown up in a very conservative area smack where the Midwest meets the South, I find such articles more than a bit patronizing. In response, this recent article

 in Roll Call articulates my feelings much better than I could. Change a few details and I could’ve written it myself.

I grew up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, a small bedroom suburb of Cincinnati that — like many Cincinnati suburbs — is almost entirely white, Roman Catholic, insular, and rapidly conservative. I never met a black person my age until my family moved to Asheville, North Carolina when I was ten, and I still remember my third grade music teacher at Woodfill School explaining to us that a Jewish kid had enrolled in the school as if it were something controversial. Sunday school at our mainline Protestant church included regular exhortations about the evils of communism. Cincinnati itself, just across the river, was largely considered a no-man’s-land. My dad was a big volunteer for Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning on their early runs for public office, and has a hand-written letter from President Gerald Ford thanking him for his work for the Republican Party.

After we moved to North Carolina, I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years in very conservative parts of the South, usually on or near military bases. I come from a long line of authoritarian military men who thought of violence as the first and last solution to any problem. Discipline in our home was meted out at the end of a leather belt, especially when I was struggling in school due to an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder and related issues of anxiety and depression. I was bullied nonstop at school because I was perceived to be gay or asexual, and it’s taken me years to finally admit to myself that I grew up in an abusive home environment. I’ve been suicidal at various points of my life, and came very close to ending it all during a particularly dark spell in 2003.

Despite all that, I still bought into the Republican worldview hook, line, and sinker. I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio all the time and believed every word he said, I owned two of his books, and spent most of my time convinced that my world was under attack by liberals and minorities who I had never actually met. My friends from high school may even remember me giving a speech in favor of re-electing George H. W. Bush during the 1992 election.

My views never really began to change until I had moved out on my own in Chicago, and found myself in a diverse urban neighborhood with a lot of people who weren’t like me. (Chicago’s hyper-gentrified Lincoln Park neighborhood wasn’t exactly a model of urban diversity in the late 1990s and is even less so now, but it was still a million times more diverse than anywhere I had lived previously.) It wasn’t until I was well into my 20’s, spending a summer in Boston during the 2000 election season, that I finally reached the point where I explicitly rejected the values of my upbringing.

I had never met anybody who I knew to be gay until that summer, and I don’t recall meeting anybody who identified as Native American until I moved to Seattle earlier this year. It’s taken me a long time to remove myself from the insular bubble I grew up in, and I no doubt still have a few steps left to go.

Most of my family, however, has never lived anywhere but Campbell County, Kentucky, and my parents still see the world through the lens of people who came of age in 1950s white suburbia. My dad only listens to recorded radio shows of that era, rarely watches any movies that don’t star John Wayne shooting a bunch of nonwhite people, and still thinks Ted Kennedy wrecking a car in 1969 is an indictment of the entire Democratic Party of today. He’s proud of the fact that now-retired Jim Bunning is his neighbor.

For me, as much as I love my hometown, being back there still brings up a lot of personal baggage and trauma. I tried to give Cincinnati a fair shot during grad school and for a while afterwards, but I ultimately made the decision to move to Seattle this past year. I haven’t regretted that decision for a second. I have nothing but incredible respect for those who stay in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and pour their lives into making it a better place, but my path lies elsewhere.

So, with all that in mind, it’s a bit patronizing to suggest that the onus is on urban liberals to step out of our bubbles, as if the parochial, lily-white “heartland” I grew up in is America’s default condition and that diverse, liberal coastal cities are the outliers. Cities like New York and Seattle are filled with people who have spent their lives trying to escape insular bubbles, and are every bit as much the “real America” as Midwestern factories and cornfields. On an issue-by-issue basis, America’s values are strongly in line with those of urban liberals; it is the rural and exurban conservatives who are living in an insular bubble, by choice or not.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with a Constitution that was largely written to appease Southern slaveholders of the 1700s, which is a big reason why our representative republic is anything but representative. Anti-urban bias is practically hard-baked into America’s DNA, and is why Trump got elected despite getting fewer votes.

I’ll close by quoting the Facebook status of a friend of a friend that was shared anonymously:

I come from a small rural town much like the ones discussed in that Cracked article everyone has been resharing in the wake of the election. I get the sentiment expressed. I understand that people in those areas feel like their way of living is being wiped out. I comprehend the need for compassion.

But at the same time, many of us who grew up in those places left precisely because of the unshakable social underpinnings their culture wrought: Biblical literalism, fundamentalism and evangelism. Racism. Hatred for gays and lesbians. Lack of education.

A few of us have tried to return and work in those communities (whether as entrepreneurs or as volunteers) to improve situations we felt were suboptimal. In many cases, our efforts were rebuffed by individuals so enthralled by a stagnant mindset about urban planning and politics that they could not make room to try anything new that might improve their situation. […]

I’m not saying ether side is right or wrong, necessarily—but I’m having a really hard time understanding how this is the fault of me and people like me who have fled these communities and cloistered families because we couldn’t endure the ignorance we saw play out there. It’s difficult to comprehend what, if anything, I *owe* them. Because right now, I FEEL as if I owe them nothing.

This doesn’t mean that people in liberal cities can smugly sit on our laurels; we have a ton of work to do. Without any support from the federal government, we’ll be largely on our own. And I fear that we’ll soon find out that many of our own neighbors and public officials aren’t as liberal and compassionate as we had hoped; we won’t be spared the shitstorm that’s coming. In fact, we’ll be the target for much of it.

My focus for the immediate future is to help make sure my new home city remains a safe sanctuary for all, to ensure that people who come here are given the same warm welcome that has been graciously afforded to me, and I will do whatever I can to support those who are oppressed, hurting, and trying to make the world a better place, wherever they are.

What to do About Passenger Rail

With Amtrak’s perpetual crisis being the hot topic of discussion these days, I thought I’d chime in with my own ideas on how to improve passenger rail service in the US. It’s easy to make political barbs about the situation (something I’ve done quite often), but it rings hollow without some constructive ideas for improvements as well. So here it goes.

First, here’s a few presumptions that I’m proceeding from:

  • Nationwide passenger rail is a crucial component of the public infrastructure, no less important than the highways, airports, or subways.
  • Amtrak, in its present form, will never achieve self-sufficiency.
  • An antiquated and congested infrastructure is a major factor in rail travel’s problems (both passenger rail and freight).
  • The freight railroads have no interest in taking over passenger rail operations.
  • High-speed passenger rail will be competitive with the airlines for distances of less than about 500 miles.
  • Long-distance passenger trains, with improvements, will be competitive with driving for distances greater than about 500 miles.

First of all, I’d suggest that all major railroad ROW’s be taken over by eminent domain and operated by the government. Similar to the highway system, tracks would be regulated and maintained by a combination of state and federal governments. Dispatching would be operated by some agency such as the FRA, similar to how the FAA regulates the airlines. Additionally, the infrastructure and signaling would be upgraded to a consistent set of national standards.

Amtrak and the freight railroad companies would continue to own and operate their own rolling stock, but would no longer be restricted to their own trackage. The railroads would pay a fee to operate in certain “slots”, much like how the airlines operate with a finite amount of airspace. The government would have to spend a substantial amount of money upfront to acquire the ROW’s, but I suspect the freight railroads would be happy to free themselves from having to pay for maintenance and property taxes. They’d probably let their ROW’s go for fire sale prices in return for being able to continue using them. Additional funds could be raised by issuing bonds and increasing taxes on gasoline and airline tickets.

Long-distance passenger rail
First of all, I think it’s a crucial part of our national transportation network. September 11th and its aftermath was proof of this. There is a proven demand for long-distance passenger trains despite all of Amtrak’s woes, and it is a viable alternative to the gridlocked highways and airports. Additionally, it serves many rural areas that have few other options. Most people on the Empire Builder aren’t going from Chicago to Seattle; they’re going from somplace like Fargo, North Dakota to Wolf Point, Montana.

With significant upgrades made to the infrastructure (including, ideally, electrification of major lines), passenger trains would be able to operate with minimal interference. Also, with freight railroads now operate over any tracks they choose, redundant ROW’s could be consolidated and/or dedicated for passenger use. Ideally, long-distance trains using coaches based on the successful Surfliner design could operate at up to 110 MPH and with much less interference from freight trains.

Amtrak may still not be totally self-sufficient under these circumstances, but freed from having to maintain and pay property taxes on the infrastructure, I suspect other carriers may be more likely to enter the passenger rail business and Amtrak could be spun off as a private company. If not, then Amtrak should receive adequate financial support to continue these operations.

Like the airlines, I think there could be a market for multiple rail carriers if they receive the proper incentives. There could be low-cost carriers that specialize in cheap, no-frills rail travel (i.e. Southwest Airlines), in addtion to luxury “land cruise” lines that spare no expense. The bottom line: Allow these to flourish if there’s a market demand for them, but don’t allow Amtrak to die if there isn’t.

Regardless of what happens in the rail industry, it goes without saying that Amtrak management and labor will need to do their part to increase their own accountability and efficiency, even if Amtrak continues as a quasi-governmental agency indefinitely. At the very least, it would give the company some much-needed credibility. I’m not an MBA major, so I’ll let other people figure out how to accomplish that.

High-speed regional rail
In addition to traditional long-haul passenger trains, we need a viable network of 200+ MPH high-speed trains operating on heavily-used corridors (NEC, California) and connecting major cities within a given region (Midwest, Texas, Southeast). These trains would use separate ROW’s for the high-speed portions of their journeys between stops, and could use shared ROW’s at slower speeds near terminals. These dedicated ROW’s could be newly-constructed along mainline freight ROW’s or, in certain cases, along the medians of interstate highways. In other cases, these high-speed ROW’s could be upgraded freight tracks made redundant by government ownership.

These dedicated ROW’s would be held to stringent federal standards, much like how interstate highways are held to certain design standards. These standards would include track grades and construction, grade crossings (preferably, all high-speed lines would be completely grade-separated much like the interstate highways), cab signaling, and electrification.

The high-speed trains themselves could be operated by Amtrak, regional authorities, or even private companies if the market allows, but the FRA should establish some nationwide standards for high-speed rail modeled after the successful systems in France and Japan. I’m not saying the trains should be turned into tin cans, but I don’t think we’ll ever have a true high-speed system based on 1800’s technology. There can be a happy middle ground that incorporates the proactive safety systems found on the TGV with the reactive crashworthiness standards of the FRA; the two approaches don’t need to be mutually-exclusive. However, the FRA will need to learn to think outside the box when developing these standards, and be open to newer technologies that cut down on weight but not on safety.

Articulation is a good example of this: The railcars are articulated on French TGV trains, which makes the trains much stiffer than their US counterparts, and keeps the cars inline and upright during a derailment, in addition to cutting down weight by eliminating extra trucks. There’s nothing about this that would preclude trains from being built to FRA crashworthiness standards. Even the slower-speed long-distance trains (the Surfliner-based coaches) could be articulated, cutting down on weight, increasing stability at higher speeds, and increasing interior space on the lower levels of the coaches. This would involve a sacrifice in some flexibility in making up consists, but I think this could be overcome with good planning and regular maintenance.

Of course, this would take considerable political willpower, a lot of money, and some real leadership. Unfortunately, I don’t see any of these things coming from the current climate in Washington. However, I don’t think this is impossible. Over the past 50-some-odd years this country has built a nationwide superhighway system as well as a world-class airport system, so there’s no reason we can’t also have a world-class rail system. I think there could be a large degree of puplic support for such a project, as it combines the best features of the public and private sectors. However, I think public support for passenger rail is largely untapped, as it’s not exactly a hot-button issue in most areas. This is where some leadership and advocacy need to come in.

(originally posted on the SubTalk forum at