February 14, 2001 (The following editorial appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.) Unlike in the United States, air passengers stranded in Europe because of the effects of a volcano have more transportation options with highly interconnected and efficient trains, buses, and ferries.
Bumped flyers may be forced
to travel cheek by jowl as they flock to alternatives, but the point is, they
at least have a sophisticated transport backup to turn to. And its importance
grows with each day that ash spews from Iceland’s volcano.
Over the decades, the
Europeans have worked steadily at building this extensive and generally
reliable surface network – not without grumbling. Back in 1987, when
construction began on the English Channel rail tunnel, the British were still
debating its merits. Cost overruns in the ensuing years did not help the tunnel’s
cause. But the island inhabitants are surely thankful for it now, as the French
railway SNCF says it will offer reduced fares and 80,000 extra seats between
Paris and London this week.
All across Europe, ferries,
trains, and buses are adding capacity to make up for the sudden lack of air
travel – the largest shutdown of European airspace since World War II. The war
comparison is an apt one, because it underscores the importance of transport as
a national security issue.
The U.S. needs to again
treat transportation with such seriousness. Within 50 years, America’s
population is expected to surge by 150 million people. Likewise, transportation
experts expect huge traffic increases in freight over the next few decades. But
over time, the U.S. has neglected its infrastructure, and in the case of
streetcars and passenger rail, even eliminated or reduced these networks.
The country is slowly
waking up to its transport deficiency. In the 2008 election, voters passed 25
of 33 ballot measures to increase local or state taxes to pay for public
transportation. Californians passed a ballot initiative to start building a
bullet train network. And since his election, President Obama has pushed
forward high-speed rail.
America can foresee its
transportation needs. But what about the unforeseen? Perhaps not a volcano, but
another 9/11 or natural disaster, such as a severe hurricane season. The United
States should be at least as prepared as Europe.