Forget the rails, my bike really would have liked Ike

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One of the strangest — and for me, one of the most endearing — characteristics of our confusing time is our affection for antique forms of transportation such as trains and bicycles.

In pre-bust California, the giddy voters authorized the state to issue nearly $10 billion in transportation bonds to finance a proposed high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The proposed line will cost much more than $10 billion, so the feds will have to pick up the rest of the tab.

No problem! Judging from its public pronouncements, it seems that the Obama administration regards investment in a national high-speed rail network as today’s equivalent to the Eisenhower administration’s interstate highway system, first launched during 1954 and essentially finished a dozen years later.

But before we get dewy-eyed about the prospect of gleaming trains once again embarking passengers at the old DRG&W depot, we ought to consider the many significant differences between the two projects — not to mention the unhappy prospect of losing Giuseppe’s!

During the mid-1950s, it was easy and convenient to drive from New York to Chicago, thanks to a system of limited access toll roads that were well-maintained, relatively lightly traveled and reasonably affordable.

But once in Chicago, a Colorado-bound motorist had no options. It was two-lane blacktop all the way — monotonous, memorable and dangerous. The roads were clogged with semis, with college kids heading home (us!), with drunks in pickups (ran us off the road!) and with careful, slow Midwestern drivers (out of our way, old folks!).

It was obvious that our national highway transportation network was inefficient, constrained and incapable of supporting a growing economy. It was equally obvious that the federal government would have to create, finance and design any new network. Toll roads made sense in the then-wealthy industrial heartland, but not in the underdeveloped South or the sparsely populated West.

Thus was born the interstate highway system, which simply replicated the linked toll roads of the northeast and the Midwest on a national scale. The need was clear, and the proposed system would benefit every state and every city of any size.

The system wasn’t officially completed until 1992, when the last segment of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon was opened to traffic. Estimated to cost $25 billion, it eventually cost a cumulative $114 billion — which, translated into 2009 dollars, is about $460 billion.

That’s less than one-third of the government’s projected budget deficit for this year alone. It’s less than the amount that the feds have injected into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac this year to prop up the mortgage market.

Clearly, it was the best investment that government ever made.

Interstate highways connected the country as it had never been connected before, eased the movement of goods and people, and underpinned the prosperity and growth of the Sun Belt.

The interstate system was designed to be passive and adaptive, a flexible network of roads available to all users. It was the Internet of its time — open source hardware, its function determined not by bureaucrats, planners and governments, but by users. Hundreds of millions of Americans use the interstate system every day, each for his or her own unique purposes. Its only flaw is its overwhelming popularity, which (surprise!) has caused congestion.

A national high-speed rail system would be very different. Its primary purpose would be to funnel Americans into courses of action considered socially desirable — i.e., riding trains. The decision to build such a network would have as much to do with social engineering as with railroad building, since its ultimate objective would be to move Americans out of their cars and into rail cars.

At the risk of sounding like the sainted President Eisenhower, maybe we should just forget intercity rail, build trolleys and light rail systems in cities, like Denver, where the residents will foot the bill, and spend our dough rebuilding the interstate system that has served us so well.

Bikes are different.

It makes sense to reconfigure urban road systems to provide for safe and enjoyable bicycle travel — but not because bike commuting is likely to become a major trip generator. Creating bike routes by striping lanes on wide, less traveled streets is cheap and easy, and benefits bike commuters and recreational cyclists alike.

Biking is a means of transportation, a sport, an economic generator and an economic development tool. Absent a community commitment to cycling, we wouldn’t have an internationally known business such as Carmichael Training Systems happily ensconced in the renovated Midland Roundhouse at Highway 24 and 21st Street.

Conclusion: keep Giuseppe’s in the old depot and stripe a bike lane down Sierra Madre, so it’s even easier to ride there. And since I’d like to commute to work occasionally, maybe the company would consider re-defining “business casual” to include bike shorts and a fluorescent yellow shirt …

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.