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Sometimes governing least isn't governing best

August 24, 2008|By ROBERT GARY

The government is best which governs least. Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson both said that. It's not the same as saying, "The government that does the least is the best." Doing things is a natural response to a world that always presents new challenges and where, sometimes, doing nothing is not an option.

So, onto doing something - but what shall we do?

How about something that creates millions of high-paying jobs for Americans? How about something that permanently improves us, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, averts the catastrophe of climate change, reduces the cost of most goods and increases commerce among the several states?

How about a second national highway system, built smack on top of the first one? It would run right down the median strip of Interstate 80, which runs from New York City to Sacramento Calif. Also let's do I-90 from Boston to Seattle, and while we're at it Interstates 70 and 15, which run from D.C. to L.A.

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What makes this a second system? Simple - high speed rail. This would be high-quality ribbon rail, allowing train speeds in the area of 120 mph where the line is flat and straight.

Why put three lines in from coast to coast? That's where the money is for high-speed freight. That's where one can take the maximum number of 18 wheelers off the road. That's where you save the most in diesel fuel and thus it's where the impact on foreign oil imports is greatest. If you could only find a low emissions propulsion system for the high-speed freight trains, you would solve about five problems at once, so by way of doing, that would be some pretty good doing.

The first four cars in a Liquefied Natural Gas-powered train would be electric locomotives. You need at least four to get over the Continental Divide, while pulling 50 to 100 cars. After the locomotives comes the Data Processing Car with a fairly powerful computer, communications gear and GPS, along with a little bit of room for the engineers to nap and eat.

The sixth car is Power Conditioning - a set of transformers, inverters and capacitors controlled by data processing. This car converts raw output from the fuel cells to power that the electric motors can use. Behind this car, the next two cars are high-temperature fuel cell cars. These convert methane and hydrogen mixed gases into pure electricity.

They operate above 1,000 degrees Centigrade so they don't need a lot of catalysts. At that temperature, the fuel cell reactions are largely self-pumping and self-catalyzing. Behind the two fuel-cell cars, you have your gas preparation car, where the LNG is rendered into gas form and, as appropriate, mixed with hydrogen.

The hydrogen infusion can range from about 5 percent to about 20 percent. The benefit is that it makes the methane convert into volts hotter, faster, cleaner, and peppier (more electron volts produced per cubic foot of gas mix).

The next three cars are Liquefied Natural Gas cars, and they are essentially huge thermos bottles on wheels. They have a bleed valve on top because the LNG is constantly boiling off - but only a little bit of it - it's very cold stuff, and has to stay cold to stay liquid.

This train has 12 cars contributing to propulsion, so it's got about twice as many propulsion cars as a comparable diesel electric. The LNG propulsion is preferable, not because it's the cheapest, but because it's the safest for the engineers. In a derailment, LNG is just a bunch of cold liquid that spews out on the ground and evaporates, unlike propane or compressed natural gas, both of which could cause explosions and fires.

It's better to do something than to do nothing. Governments that do nothing when something needs to be done are not governing best, they are simply being unresponsive. In a world of lethal challenges, not responding is not an option - it's more like a choice to give up the ship, to abandon our national prospect and walk away from our clear best chance.

Bicoastal high speed freight is the right project at the right time. It needs to be done by the government because standardization is key to implementation, and each railroad company has its own ideas and methods. A standardized system that is demonstrated over a 20 year period becomes a saleable asset with proven revenue.

Auction it off, as a going concern business, with a 99 year lease on the rights of way, and 100 percent sale of all intellectual property rights, all trade secrets, and all technology. The money raised goes back in the U.S. Treasury - it can be recycled for another worthy thing that needs to be done. The Second National Highway System winds up in the private sector to be operated on a for-profit basis within certain public interest guidelines - just the way a TV or radio station is operated.

The idea is not to make the government bigger by having it own and run more stuff. The idea is to use the government as the innovation pioneer when the scope of what needs doing requires the full range of powers and prerogatives that only the U.S. government has, and where the thing to be done is wonderful in five major ways and greatly beneficial to the U.S. national security.

Interstates 70, 80, and 90 are parts of our National Defense Highway System, so there's a solid legal basis for their use to enhance our national security by reducing our dependence on oil imported from the Middle East or South America. Having an economy where millions of Americans are gainfully employed at good jobs in the USA also makes the country more economically viable. Greener technologies help the Earth and set a good example for other nations - this is part of what we do as the Shining City on the Hill.

Robert Gary is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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