What About Amtrak and Afghanistan? Sometimes Building Big Is the Problem

The long-forgotten Erie Canal. (The Atlantic)

Brooklyn architect David Grider had an interesting rebuttal to The Observer‘s story last week about the need for greater infrastructure investment in the country and the region, which challenges many assumptions about rail travel and even reminds us the Erie Canal was not the super success everyone likes to remember it as.

If Amtrak can barely manage to run conventional trains in the NE corridor how can we expect a high-speed rail network in the car-addicted hinterlands to be anything other than a pork-lined boondoggle?

And in that light, I was reminded of the Erie Canal, which must be remembered as two separate projects: the first, DeWitt Clinton’s vital link, was unquestionably a triumph and in keeping with the grand spirit of Doing that we seem to be missing these days. However, there was a second phase, the widening of the Erie Canal, which was an absolute money pit, the worst form of government pork, done in the face of clear railroad dominance/superiority and in spite of the calls of leading civil engineers of the time.

My hunch is that high-speed rail falls into the latter category but, more to the point, I think the view of past “triumphs” is (as I’m sure you’re aware) more nuanced than one often hears. We all know the stories of Moses’ destructive paths thru the City and mass-transit resistant parkway bridges; how many of us hear about the failures (such as the widening of the Erie Canal) that stole just as much from the public weal if, albeit, in a less obvious manner?

Finally, your article left me thinking of a Moses-scaled project that the American people have funded over the past decade: how much infrastructure has been built/destroyed/built again with Yankee dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Talk about a stake in the ground….

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC What About Amtrak and Afghanistan? Sometimes Building Big Is the Problem