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Amtrak, Federal Highways, and the Cold War

  President Bush wants to end Federal subsidies to Amtrak. The administration argues that the system has wasted nearly a billion dollars a year over the last thirty years. It is time to impose market disciplines. The Administration conveniently forgets the historical context of Amtrak's troubles. Passenger rail in this country died in large measure because Federal policy chose to subsidize the automobile and the interstate highway system.

Over Christmas vacation nearly fifty years ago my family and I took a train trip from Detroit to Bangor, where we rented a car for a trip to our summer home in Southwest Harbor. It is one of my fondest memories, though even then the rail cars were showing signs of wear. Little did I realize that a mere two years before our trip, President Eisenhower had signed the death warrant for US passenger rail. We think of Dwight Eisenhower as a fiscal conservative, but the Interstate Highway Act (1956) was the largest pubic works project in history and no other public works project has done more to transform this nation.

The fifties were the height of the Cold War. Cold War thinking shaped the debate on and contours of even such seemingly "domestic" matters as urban and intercity transportation. Eisenhower defended the vast public works project as a war preparedness initiative that would allow transport of munitions and other vital items in a wartime emergency.

The auto was also connected to the Cold War at a deeper cultural level. The Cold War was an effort not merely to protect the physical boundaries of the nation against foreign incursion but also to define an American identity. The private auto was synonymous with individual consumption, and freedom was increasingly defined as the right to choose among an expanding cornucopia of consumer goods. And with growing dependence on the auto came the rise of suburbia and an economy where every suburban homeowner would have his or her own lawnmower and snowblower.

However much we may like to view such consumerism as an outgrowth of and response to market freedoms, government played a considerable role in fostering this vision of the good life. Both state and federal governments have continued to subsidize the auto through both highway funds and support for police and ambulance services. Mortgage insurance, urban renewal, and tax subsidies all worked with the highway system to push suburbanization.


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At the cultural level government intervened heavily as well. History texts tell us that the 1947 Taft Hartley Act required the removal of "Communists" from the American labor movement. Yet the implications of that act were far broader. Taft Hartley, followed by Truman era loyalty oaths and the early days of McCarthyism, led to a purge not merely of violent extremists but of all those radical elements who questioned the culture's single- minded focus on material growth. American labor had a long and indigenous radical tradition that had campaigned for shorter working hours along with more egalitarian organization of the workplace itself.

As Vice President Nixon's famous 1959 kitchen cabinet debate with Nikita Khruschev illustrated, by the late fifties American freedom had been redefined as the sweeping auto with tail fins and the bounteous kitchen. Yet that freedom entailed losses. Americans in most cities could no longer choose public transit and even found it harder to walk to work or to shop in their immediate neighborhoods.

Our Cold War era transportation system paradoxically leaves us increasingly vulnerable to international disruptions. Lacking the rail systems even of the fifties, trips from Bangor to Boston, DC, or NYC by car or air are extremely costly. Every world supply disruption leaves us ever more vulnerable. How Amtrak's demise would affect the Portland to Boston train remains unclear, but in a broad sense it is time to rethink the old arguments about subsidies.

Having ever more cars on the road is a recipe not only for smog but also for time- consuming gridlock as well. What kind of freedom is that ties up ever larger chunks of our days in commuter traffic? And looked at from the vantage point of my home town, Maine tourist communities could accommodate many more people, but not more cars. Maine's long- term future as a tourist economy has a major stake in the current Amtrak debate.

The economics of public transit subsidies work in exactly the opposite direction from the economics of the private auto. More runs between Portland and Boston make that train more attractive and expand demand. Adding Bangor would in turn further increase the demand for and utility of the system. An East West rail connection to Quebec also makes more sense than another federal highway. Transportation is vital to any modern economy and all governments subsidize their transportation systems. It is time to make choices that meet the full range of contemporary concerns.

John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressivefor ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." He may be reached at

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