Wes Vernon Commentary
July 2011

Were Highways This Difficult? Building a Rail Line:
Like Pulling Teeth

Before the "beautiful children" of the sixties, there was very little focus on whether highways should have been built.

Too bad that the very idea of building the huge interstate highway encountered little controversy until brought to the forefront by those who were quickly discredited because their biggest beef with the highway was that it symbolized commerce, or that it reflected (incorrectly, in my view) individual freedom. But to the sixties crowd the issue was "the system" that should be "overthrown," and just wait until the "revolution."

Good public relations - for the highways

Every time Joe and Jane Six-Pack saw on TV a loudmouth with a bullhorn lying down in front of highway construction crew, deliberately going limp while being dragged away by the cops, you could score one for the highway gang.

Too little, too late

By the time Helen Leavitt came forth with her Super-Highways, Super-Hoax, it was too late. The system was up and running, trolley tracks had been ripped up, much of inter-city passenger rail was discontinued, freights were operating on less than totally reliable infrastructure, and the rail companies were in terrible financial shape, as exemplified by the wreck of the Penn Central.

Now the point of all this

I came to the Washington area in 1968, several years after the Beltway opened. Can anyone out there who has been around here for a long time tell me if that road generated anywhere near the gawdawful controversy and metaphoric pulling of teeth that we have encountered in building the Metrorail system, contemporarily spotlighted by the Silver Line to Dulles airport? Please let me know.

The latest on Dulles, as of this writing, indicates we may end up with a train which, in the interest of truth in advertising, will have to be labeled the Almost-to-Dulles service, an aboveground structure that will require a considerable hike and faith that moving paths will work better than what we have historically seen with Metro's escalators.

Missing in this conversation is even the slightest peep about the need for a support service that bridges the unreasonably long walking distance between Metro stop and airport. As mentioned recently in this space, that will require a skycap station at the stop, fully staffed and equipped with staff-driven vehicles (a la Union Station) to carry passengers and luggage--especially elderly/disabled to and from the airline check-in.

If that's what we have to do

As I write this, the Washington Post runs an editorial, Ungilding the Silver Line, whose point is to cite all the corners that are to be cut in order to keep costs within reason.

Okay, okay! I get it. I get it! We need to cut costs. I'm fine with that. But are we factoring in the necessity to make the designation of the Dulles International Metro stop accurate? Are the green-eyeshade whiz kids considering that? Or will we end up with a Metro stop that is a joke and ridiculed throughout the century as the Dulles line that really doesn't serve Dulles Airport?

Not for the first time

This, of course, is not the first time we have had to push, push, push to get a Metrorail line built.

In my community of Glenmont, I and others here spent a quarter century arguing for the Red Line to serve our community. We had to fight the "Country Squires" crowd who fancied themselves literally as being "out in the country." (In Wheaton? You've got to be kidding!)

There were fears that, while not valid, were understandable in a way. Some had grown up living in apartments next to an elevated line in New York City. For them, even the slightest hint of a train in the neighborhood evoked memories of a return to a lifestyle they thought they had left behind. I know that's not logical, but memories of an undesirable past do not always prompt dispassionate reaction.

And of course, there was the battle to get the feds involved in the first place. Say what one will of President Nixon, his White House fought for the Metrorail as then envisioned (later slightly expanded) for 103 miles.

Even in retrospect

There are even some who, in a 21st century classic case of shaking one's fist at the moon, condemn the 19th century construction of the transcontinental railroad.

Such is the case with the just-released book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

The author Richard White gives us lots of scholarship on the ethical shortcomings of the rail chiefs who opened up the West to commerce and ultimately validated President Lincoln's vision of an expanding nation that would become a world power.

Professor White teaches History at Stanford University, named in honor of Leland Stanford, one of this book's bad guys.

He argues that while the transcontinental railroads may have worked out well in the long run, they were not "needed" in the mid- to late-19th century.

Funny, but I don't recall anyone in the fifties arguing that the interstate highway wasn't "needed" because there were no motels, restaurants, service stations or rest stops already established for the convenience of the motorists. Not to beat to death the old chicken-and-egg metaphor, but . . .

Even James J. Hill, the "Empire Builder" himself, takes his posthumous lumps in this book. One of White's beefs about Hill's Great Northern, built with quality material and without direct federal subsidies, is that throughout parts of North Dakota, Montana and Washington State, the GN imposed "environmental damage."

Oh, really? That's why places like Glacier National Park are extremely popular, and have made it easier for tourists to visit and take in the natural beauties that abound along the route, or the Cascade Mountains which the Empire Builder train traverses between Seattle and Chicago. One wonders if the professor is among those who believe the less developed the wilderness the better. Perhaps we have here an academic "tourists/bad, untouched and unseen scenery/good" mindset.

Back to question

So again, railroads--past, present, future--evoke opposition that is as toxic as it is irrational. Why? Was it this hard to get the Beltway built?