That train don’t stop here anymore

High-speed rail in China is not without challenges, including pricey fares and allegations of corruption in the construction of parts of the bullet-train service.

But in the larger context, the system — the most advanced fast-rail system on the planet — is expanding economic benefits and opportunities for the country that could, but won’t, happen in the United States.

Just as building the interstate highway system a half-century ago made modern, national commerce more feasible in the United States, China’s ambitious rail rollout is helping integrate the economy of this sprawling, populous nation — though on a much faster construction timetable and at significantly higher travel speeds than anything envisioned by the Eisenhower administration.

Work crews of as many as 100,000 people per line have built about half of the 10,000-mile network in just six years, in many cases ahead of schedule — including the Beijing-to-Shanghai line that was not originally expected to open until next year. The entire system is on course to be completed by 2020.

For the United States and Europe, the implications go beyond marveling at the pace of Communist-style civil engineering. China’s manufacturing might and global export machine are likely to grow more powerful as 200-mile-an-hour trains link cities and provinces that were previously as much as 24 hours by road or rail from the entrepreneurial seacoast.

Americans watching these developments tend to look at China’s successes from two angles. From the left, it’s envy — the U.S. could make a similar commitment, and reap the benefits, but Republicans won’t allow it. From the right, it’s disdain — China is spending money to improve its infrastructure, spending is bad; ergo the most advanced fast-rail system on the planet is nothing to emulate.

Of course, the question that’s rarely asked if what the right’s counter-proposal is. The left sees high-speed rail as a way to boost economic development, create a lot of jobs, foster innovation, relieve crowded roads, and even reduce emissions. How would conservatives prefer to boost economic development, create a lot of jobs, foster innovation, relieve crowded roads, and even reduce emissions? Apparently, the plan is to cut taxes for the wealthy and wait for good things to happen.

It’s not that we lack the ability to tackle major challenges; it’s that Republicans don’t even want to try.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.