Friday, May 17, 2013

Fantasyland, Southern Style

If a map of rail lines in the United States is like a series of interconnected spider's webs, Atlanta sits like the spider in the middle of a the biggest one in the southeast--a well known fact ever since Sherman set his sights on the city. What's also well known is that outside of Atlanta, vast stretches of rural Georgia are essentially unconnected to Atlanta, or anywhere, except by car. Air service? Don't be silly. Greyhound stopped coming years ago, if it ever did. Many of these small towns have lovely old train stations, which have either been boarded up or pressed into use by some forlorn "civic restoration" committee. The trains that pass by those stations are not passenger trains; they're freight trains headed to some Home Depot or Wal Mart 50 or 100 miles away. If you live in, say, Hogansville or Barnesville, and you don't have a car, your employment options are limited to low-paid fast food or retail jobs. If you live in those places and you work in the Atlanta metro area, you will spend a fortune on gas and half your life behind the wheel.

I've traveled a lot in these areas over the years, and looking at the rail infrastructure that's already there--not to mention the lovely old housing stock many of these small towns can offer--I've wondered many times: what would it take to get passenger rail going again for rural Georgia? Imagine the economic benefits of being able to live in one of those beautiful 19th century homes and commute to work in Atlanta by rail. Repeat that story up and down the old Atlanta-West Point line, and think of the number of cars you could take off the roads. Think of the lifestyle you'd be able to afford. Think of the jobs that people who already live in Hogansville would have access to. Am I nuts for even thinking this would be a good thing?

Yes, and no, according to a an interesting piece in  The Daily Yonder, a blog run by Austin, Texas-based writer Bill Bishop. Reporter C. B. Hall describes the persistent fight it took for rural residents in Washington state to get Amtrak to provide passenger service to their small towns, which Amtrak's Empire Builder passenger trail had whizzed through for years without stopping. I figured there would be formidable obstacles to this kind of thing, but "formidable" doesn't begin to describe it, according to Hall:

  • Amtrak is perennially strapped for cash and hasn't bought any new passenger cars for years; its passenger car budget is limited to replacing and repairing what it already has.
  • The freight trains that use the existing rail infrastructure are legally required to let Amtrak share the rails, but there's no law that limits how much they can charge Amtrak for doing so. The exorbitant rates they charge Amtrak for use of the rails effectively keeps Amtrak out of the passenger rail service in rural areas. 
  • For the same reason, Amtrak requires that the towns themselves pay for the cost of building a train station. Obviously, the towns I'm talking about, there's no building involved--the stations are already there, and in pretty decent shape--but there would be some considerable refurbishing and re-hab. And small towns in Georgia have even less money than Amtrak.
Here's the point where the current state of Southern politics poses the most insurmountable hurdle. If we were living in the days of FDR, angling to get a little federal largesse to jump-start a project like this would be a political no-brainer. Today, in the current "government is evil" climate, it's a political non-starter. A small-town mayor could get away with it; state-wide political figures can do it behind the scenes, as they always do. But get the region's leaders to go all-out for more federal money to re-establish a communal transportation infrastructure that makes all the sense in the world? Hell, no. They can hear their constituents right now. I ain't giving up my car so some dern tree-huggers can live out in the country, and I ain't payin' more taxes for it, neither. Yet the money is there: for starters, all we'd have to do is junk those seven F-22 bombers that Sen. Saxby Chambliss loves so much but that the Air Force has said over and over it doesn't want or need, and that's $1.75 billion right there. 

Yeah, right. When pigs roost in trees.

And so, Southern history repeats itself. In the days after the Civil War, there was federal money available to jump-start rail-building throughout the war-ravaged South. Business leaders knew that's what was needed, farmers knew it was needed--but regional animosity, political shenanigans and ingrained suspicion of the federal government made it all but impossible, except for a few miles here and there. The railroads were built, eventually, by private rail barons who made huge profits for themselves and spread it around, to the extent that they spread it around at all, only as far as the local politicians they needed to buy to maintain their monopolies.  We've advanced past that--today, we have public ownership of the railroads, an idea which was considered radical, even Socialist, back in the 1870s. As the Daily Yonder piece shows, a few rural towns have succeeded in restoring passenger service, in places like New England and Washington state. But in the South, getting public service out of our public rails still seems like a fantasy.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Were We Thinking?

There is no group easier to take down these days than antebellum Southern plantation owners--those folks  who saw absolutely nothing wrong with living a life of ease made possible by the backbreaking, unpaid labor of other human beings. To our 21st century minds, their discombobolation at the end of slavery--the sudden "rudeness" of formerly docile servants, the "ingratitude" of slaves who just up and left one day--seems comical. What did they think would happen? we ask.

I can't help but wonder if someday our descendants will think the same of us when it comes to our fossil fuel addiction. I think in analogies--and I'm just working this one out--but it seems to me that (and here = stands for "roughly analogous to"):

  • Our dependence on oil and natural gas=the plantation South's dependence on slave labor
  • The long-term damage to the planet caused by over-dependence on fossil fuels = long-term damage to the Southern economy caused by over-dependence on cotton as a cash crop
  • Damage to soil caused by unsustainable dependence on petroleum-derived fertilizers and resulting monoculture practices (like growing corn, corn and more corn) = damage to soil caused by monoculture created by growing cotton, cotton and more cotton
  • Our indifference to/defensiveness about the human role in climate change for the last 50 years = antebellum South's attitude toward growing anti-slavery sentiment for most of the 19th century 
  • The willingness of Western society to let poorer (and let's face it, mostly brown-skinned) nations pay the price for climate change = the willingness of white Southerners to get a free ride out of slave labor
It may not be a perfect analogy, but I think it's got some meat to it. Comments welcome.