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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    When ‘infrastructure’ dislocates a town

    Everybody seems to love federal appropriations for "infrastructure" -- free money, conjured not with taxation but with inflation and the rest of the world's purchase of U.S. government debt. Such appropriations can pay for big and expensive things, like modernizing the country's creaky passenger rail system.

    But will people always be as approving when a big project begins its construction phase?

    Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy raised the question the other day in remarks to the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce. He acknowledged that using the many billions recently appropriated to improve the passenger railroad between Boston and Washington will involve "dislocation" in eastern Connecticut.

    Straightening track to increase rail speed will infringe on many properties in towns that value their relative isolation from the modern age and its noise. Constructing a new, much straighter route between New York and Boston, running from southwestern Connecticut through the central and eastern parts of the state, about which planners have mused, might cut an hour off rail travel time at the cost of trampling hundreds of properties under eminent domain.

    This makes sense from a railroading perspective. But, much set in its ways, Connecticut can hardly reach consensus on eliminating a grade crossing.

    Besides, is improving intercity passenger rail service really as compelling as it seemed a few years ago, now that the internet has eliminated so much commuting to work and so many in-person business meetings? Recent clamor in Washington and at the state Capitol has been almost entirely about needs like public health, housing, and education, with little said about getting from one city to another a little faster.

    So it is possible and maybe even likely that Connecticut will see no big passenger rail improvements or any transportation improvements at all any time soon. While state government recently started commuter rail service between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, the per-passenger subsidy is huge and likely unsustainable, and for decades state government has failed to complete even the easiest and most obvious road projects, like extending the Route 11 expressway from Salem to Interstate 95 in Waterford and I-384 from Bolton to the Rhode Island line.

    Credit Senator Murphy for noting that big thinking imposes big challenges. Will he strive to meet those challenges when it starts inconveniencing many of his constituents? Will he even still be in office when Connecticut confronts any big challenge?

    But Murphy, a Democrat, resorted to demagoguery when he responded to former President Donald Trump's remarks to the recent convention of the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis, where the former president and other leading Republicans pledged to protect Second Amendment rights.

    “Republicans," Murphy said, "are going to make it clear that, given the choice between our families and the gun industry, they are choosing the gun industry again. The Republican Party continues to put the gun industry and the gunmakers before the safety of our kids and our families.”

    Like other Democrats, Murphy continues to misrepresent the obstacle to his legislative objectives about guns. For the obstacle is not the "gun industry" at all.

    The "gun industry" -- gun manufacturers -- is not among the most influential special interests, many of which are aligned with Murphy's party. What most influences elected officials about guns are gun owners, many of whom are vocal and politically active. Their views may not be those of the majority but they are the people elected officials hear from most on the gun issue.

    Most people may favor, as Murphy does, mandatory, no-exception federal background checks for the purchase of and transfer of guns. Most people may even favor outlawing any rifle that looks scary, though it may operate no differently than an ordinary pistol. But most people won't bother to contact their elected officials about those issues or remember how those officials perform on them, while many gun rights supporters will.

    That's democracy for you -- not just with guns but with everything else. As the great journalist James Reston wrote, the first rule of politics is the indifference of the majority. There is majority rule only when the majority bestirs itself to rule. Until then, political minorities are often in charge.

    Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

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