A Cascadia bullet train for capital or for the people?
A Cascadia bullet train for capital or for the people? PPrat/gettyimages.com

There are only two ways to fund the Cascadia high-speed rail megaproject in the near future. One, convince Wall Street that railway mania—which died at the end of the 19th century, and was buried during first half of the 20th—has somehow been exhumed and reanimated in the 21st century. In this scenario, a renewed excitement about future profits from trains and their stations (which, as the hype would go, connects regional cities more efficiently than airports) rapidly and spectacularly inflates a bullet-train bubble on Wall Street. (To get a sense of what railroad mania is about, read Émile Zola's 19th century novel L'Argent, or, Money.) The other way to get a high-speed rail megaproject going sooner rather than later is to elect a progressive or socialist to the top political office in the US. The latter scenario is more realistic than the former.

If the country places a moderate Dem in the White House, nothing much will happen. As the Crosscut post "Does Cascadia High-Speed Rail have a future after Initiative 976?" points out that during his whole eight years in office, Obama, who claimed to a big supporter of high-speed trains, only managed to make "only marginal improvements to existing Amtrak services." Expect another moderate Dem (Biden, Buttigieg, Harris) to do much the same. Cascadia's corporate community very much wants to upgrade the region's train network, but they are certainly opposed to the only realistic way this can happen, which is with a Warren (progressive) or a Sanders (socialist) in power. The idea that business leaders "could pull this [megaproject] off" without federal assistance is a fantasy.

But there's a deeper problem that the realization of regional high-speed train system faces, and it has less to do with finding funding beyond what's available. Instead, it concerns how available funds are allocated.

This means a whole lot of money was spent on road projects that had almost negligible results. One would think the Crosscut post would focus on this very blunt fact. But it instead presents the fantasies of business leaders (who pay former politicians big checks to give pointless speeches at their conferences) as something to really talk about.

But let this sink in: 75 percent of the budget over seven years equaled a 1 percent increase in lane capacity. Those billions that did almost nothing for cars are gone for good. And the future costs of maintaining even that one percent increase in lane capacity will run in the millions. Despite these and other blunt facts, the mainstream discourse on high-speed rail and public transportation funding does not factor in the billions that have gone (and will go) into a problem (bad traffic) that needs many, many, many more billions to produce anything close to a meaningful result.

If the world was at all realistic about transportation, the fact that car infrastructure massively drains our state's budget for miniscule results would cause public outrage. But in the world we live, the one that's shaped up and down by the fantasies of car culture, a small increase on car tabs for Sound Transit is enough to detonate a state-wide voter revolt. If we return to the real world, however, we can easily see that if a fraction of the budget wasted on cars went to other forms of transportation, the effect would be a world-historical transformation of the region's way of life.

So, we can dismiss all of this small business talk about how to find funding for transportation solutions that will actually work. The discussion that's actually needed, and only socialists and progressives can realistically conduct such a discussion, is how do we (in urban areas) considerably reduce spending on a form of transportation that demands more moons of money than the mind can imagine?

And here we reach the reason why business leaders would never support a progressive or socialist approach to high-speed rails. For business leaders, it's all about improving the mobility of what Chicago school economist Gary Becker called human capital. In short, it is about the last thing the world needs now, an increase in the value of capital. But for a progressive or a socialist, high-speed trains, public transportation, and bike and pedestrian infrastructure can only be about dramatically cutting the average citizen's expenses. And this would result in a reduction of the value of capital. A world that realistically addresses climate change will have to be much cheaper than the one we are in now.