Monday, November 15, 2010

Wisconsin and Ohio to feds: Take your rail money and shove it!

Here in Michigan we’ve learned the hard way not to put all our eggs in one basket. The “right-sizing” of the domestic automobile industry – which Michiganders complacently assumed would always provide the lion’s share of our employment – resulted in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and has saddled us with the most miserable economy in a nation full of miserable state economies.

As this analysis notes, the percentage of Michigan’s gross domestic product tied to cars was 25 perecent in 1963. By 1998 it was barely 5 percent. As economist Charles Ballard notes in the analysis, “In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, having a non-diversified economy was not a problem since the dominant industry in Michigan -- autos -- was so wildly successful. Carmakers reigned supreme for so long here that Michigan seemed to develop the mindset that the good times would last forever.”

For the same reasons we need to diversify our economy, we need to diversify our transportation options. Putting virtually all our eggs in one basket – personal vehicles driving on public roads and highways – leaves us vulnerable in lots of ways: wild fluctuations in oil prices; chronic and ongoing underfunding of roads; and shifting population patterns that demand new and bigger roads in certain places, while existing and underutilized older roads still require the same level of upkeep as they did when they were in their prime.

So it is with curiosity that we learn that our neighbors in Ohio and Wisconsin are poised to tell the federal government to Shove It when they offer to help diversify those states’ transportation systems by helping them invest in better passenger railroad transportation.

If they do, Michigan stands a good chance of getting some of that money to help reduce its reliance on crumbling roads and expensive personal vehicles.

No, we can’t abandon our roads any more than we can abandon our automakers. But we can’t pretend that roads will always and forever be the smartest and most dominant way to get from Point A to Point B.

So if Ohio and Wisconsin want to flip the bird to federal help in hedging against an uncertain transportation future, we’ll be glad to help spend that unwanted money to put a few of our eggs in a different basket. We’ve learned the hard way.

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