This particular essay will be controversial on many levels. Its purpose will be to lay the groundwork for my reasoning about how such a large scale and far reaching project should be operated and controlled rather than address every criticism. In building a nationwide automated transit system we would be combining all of the road, rail, and mass transit entities in the country into one. In addition, we will be creating a new electric and utility grids, power generation facilities, and repair and maintenance facilities. By the time all is said and done, whatever entity ends up controlling the system will be responsible for trillions of dollars in assets, have a (nearly) complete monopoly on ground transport in America, be the largest generator of electricity in the world, be the largest employer in the U.S. if not the world, and have nearly as much revenue generation as the federal government.
Mark Delucchi at University of California-Davis estimates the total land value of American highways to be around $3.3 trillion in2007 dollars. We can quibble about the exact number but I am using it for some perspective for comparisons because when you throw in the value of rail and other mass transit assets (no to even mention the utilities included), the number grows even larger. The current largest corporation in the world is Exxon Mobil at around a half trillion dollars in value, giving us an idea of just how much bigger a nationwide transit will be in terms of revenues and assets controlled. In addition, the transit company will be a monopoly controlling virtually all land based travel and transport and a substantial part of the utilities in America. It is my opinion that these conditions do not allow us to subject this vital asset of American life to the vagaries of the market. To begin with, there is no “”market” when you have a monopoly. Secondly, the government is already heavily involved in controlling and subsidizing land transport in this country so completely taking it over is not as much of a change as some would like us to believe. And finally, if there is money to be made from transit, why not return that to the people who use it (virtually everyone) in the form of reduced taxes and better service. The key to this will be to have accountability for everyone from the janitor on up to the CEO, which will be discussed later.
Aside from being a monopoly for land transportation, the system would generate approximately a quarter of all of the energy used in this country, the vast majority of which will be consumed internally. If it is deemed desirable, enough solar panels and windmills could be installed on the road system to generate over half of the energy America uses. In comparison the largest electric utilities in the country right now control less than 15% of the generating capacity. It doesn’t take a Nobel prize winning mathematician to see that the largest electric utility in the country, by far, will be added to the worlds largest corporation. With that much economic activity controlled by one entity it is obvious that it will also be one of the largest employers in the world. Add the $1.5-$2 trillion America spends annually on its transportation to all of the rest and you can also see that revenues can easily rival or exceed those of the federal government.
There are good reasons for creating such a behemoth organization that I believe outweigh any reasons for not building the modern system of transportation infrastructure we are capable of. The first thing that comes to my mind is that doing so will take much of the decision making about transportation needs for our nation out of the political arena or at least insulate them somewhat. It would also standardize that decision making and quality of construction and upkeep. Another benefit of doing this is there should be many savings from economy of scale. How much more efficient is it to produce mainly one or two types of vehicle and limited numbers of others for specialized uses than to produce hundreds of different models, many of which are never sold until they are leftover for the next model year, cutting into the following years need for production? How much more efficient would it be to have mechanics doing mostly scheduled maintenance and less time on emergency repairs, requiring less overtime? How much more efficient would it be for the government to have the system pay for itself or even only almost do so? How much more efficient is it for those same governments to not have to build, maintain, operate, and police the entire system like they do at present? Finally, aside from the converting petroleum use to renewables, preventing 40,000 deaths every year, etc. that might be done in some other manner, I can see no other way of ever successfully taking on a project of this magnitude without some way of having centralized control in some form.
The case for public ownership rather than private ownership I think can be best made by history. I will point out a few examples to show why I favor public ownership. Despite the belief in certain people that government can’t do anything right, it has shown in very many cases it does do things right, sometimes spectacularly. One only need think about things like; the U.S. Postal Service (which still provides good service despite all of its problems), Depression era CCC, a strong military, NASA, and social security and medicare that have provided a safety net for millions. In fact, it seems like many of the most outstanding achievements of our nation, have been accomplished by government. Compare this with the way private entities have acted when given so much control, from robber barons to Enron to current military contractors, I can think of no examples where a privately held monopoly (or near monopoly) has ever benefited the majority of citizens in America unless there was strong government regulation anyway. These are the biggest reasons I feel it is necessary to keep any entity with such broad impact on our economy in the public rather than private domain. The rest of this essay will be about how to get the most productive and accountable public corporation possible.
While there may be entities out there that operate in the manner I am about to describe, it is certain that none are anywhere near the scale of the corporation that would be created by this project. With so much economic activity associated with a national transit system, it is imperative that the controlling entity be accountable to those who finance and use the system, namely the American public. One of the problems with accountability in current models is that, in most of them, there is little relationship between the success of the company and how the employees of said company are paid. For the most part, the only correlation is that those on the lowest rung will lose their livelihoods when the company begins to fail. Failure is not an option if we want to have the modern infrastructure I am proposing. It is not an easy thing to tie peoples pay to the overall success of the enterprise they are a part of but there are many ways of doing it. The first way is to have a basic salary for everyone employed with monthly, quarterly, or annual bonuses for performance of the system. While difficult, it should not be impossible to be able to set targets to be met and base bonuses on them. These targets would include but are not limited to; adhering to construction deadlines, staying within budget, success in adopting more efficient methods of doing things, achieving revenue expectations, and keeping high safety standards. Innovators whose ideas get implemented should also be paid for them in some sort of proportion to the worth of their benefit. There is no reason that this model cannot become the standard by which corporations of all kinds are measured against.