When I called Vincent Kartheiser on Wednesday to talk about mass transit and high-speed rail, he had literally just been in a fender bender. The irony was not lost on Kartheiser, who reprised his role as the smarmy ad guy Pete Campbell from Mad Men for a clever Funny or Die video this week to support U.S. PIRG's high-speed rail campaign.
I talked to Kartheiser about the video, why he (and not just the Pete Campbell character) thinks high-speed rail really is a great idea, and why he's reluctantly buying a car.
GOOD: How did this video come to be?
Vincent Kartheiser: I've been a supporter of U.S. PIRG and CALPIRG for awhile now, and I think Marshall [Wright from PIRG] had seen The New York Times story about me riding the bus, and he got in touch. Once we decided on doing a video we reached out to Funny or Die, who have surprisingly produced a lot of policy type videos. The guys at Funny or Die wrote the script and that was it.
Kartheiser: So, I'm actually in the process of shopping for a car. I have been riding the bus for four years. Surprisingly, it's not as difficult as everyone says. And I'm going to continue to take the bus for a lot of things—for work every day, for some errands, and for other things when I can. And I definitely like to take the bus when I go out at night. It's a lot safer than driving around and having drinks, you know?
But I am looking for a car. Partially because I'm starting to get more and more well known and that can be a little tough when you're on the bus.
GOOD: Well, I'd guess that even the staunchest transit advocates would be sympathetic to that. Some days you just don't want to be bothered. And cars do, of course, make sense for some things.
Kartheiser: Oh, I don't feel too guilty about it. But it is funny, because I've been telling magazines and newspapers that I don't have a car and now I'm worried that I'm going to be driving around and people are going to see me and scream, "Liar!"
I've been driving a hybrid car for a week. BMW loaned me this awesome hybrid car—it's super cool—but I've already had a speeding ticket, a parking ticket, and, right as you called, a guy hit me on the side of my car. This is one week with a car. A $400 speeding ticket, a hundred of dollars worth of gas, and who knows how much this accident will cost.
At some point, you really have to think to yourself: Is the cost of ownership really worth it?
GOOD: It's a relatively short leap from local transit advocacy to high-speed rail, but is there any specific reason you took up the cause?
Kartheiser: I try to do a little of what I can in my life to reduce my impact. A lot of people do. Maybe they're vegetarians. Maybe they don't have a lawn. Maybe they don't drive their car all the time. There's this website where you can check your carbon footprint. [Ed note: We've always been partial to this carbon calculator from University of California, Berkeley.] You put in what your gas bill was, what kind of car and how many miles you drive, if you're a vegetarian, and so on.
One of the questions is how much do you fly? So I click on "Over 20,000 miles." And no matter what configuration I do of all those little other things, I'm always one of the top polluters in the country just because I fly more than 20,000 miles a year. That's because the jet fuel is such a terrible pollutant.
So that's why I'm so big on high-speed rail. It's an amazing thing that's been in Japan for 50 years and Europe for 30. It's amazing how it can really cut down on lots of short flight paths. In Europe, for instance, from Brussels to Paris, there aren't even flights anymore because the train is so convenient and so quick. In a lot of cases, if you add the time it takes to get through security in the airport, it's actually faster than flying.
I know California is working on the San Francisco to Los Angeles to San Diego line, and I think that's inspiring and great. There's the Acela right now from D.C. to New York to Boston, and it does wonderfully and actually makes money for Amtrak. If we could have routes between more cities and cut down on the air travel, it could do wonders for our national carbon footprint.
GOOD: Have you had the chance to ride high-speed rail in Europe or Japan or anywhere?
Kartheiser: I've taken the Acela quite a few times, but I've never taken it in Europe or anything. I try not to travel too much other than for work. Because I travel so much for work, I don't want to add more carbon emissions to my life. So if I fly into Paris or something, I'll stay there.
GOOD: Hopefully we'll all have the chance to experience it here while we're still alive.
Kartheiser: Yeah, there's the situation now where some governors are sending back money that's been allocated to high-speed rail. And it seems like a lot of money—billions of dollars—but when you start thinking about how much it costs every year to widen or maintain roads, it's not really that much. I think I read that it costs $6 billion to maintain the roads between San Francisco and Los Angeles every year. And they're looking for $60 billion for that train line. That's only ten years of road maintenance.
It's really quite a good deal, quite economically smart.
GOOD: That was the best thing about the [Funny or Die] video: It really made the case for high-speed rail seem like a no-brainer. Not only the cost, but the convenience and everything else.
Kartheiser: Yeah, it's not only a money saving venture when all is said and done. It's a space saving venture too. Instead of spreading out asphalt across the land, you have a very thin strip of railroad.
It's also just a nice experience. I would love to be able to hop on the train and head up to San Francisco for a night, or go down to San Diego to visit family and not have to deal with four hours on the 5 freeway, you know?
And imagine if there were a high-speed line between Los Angeles and Vegas. You go to Vegas, and most people there are from L.A. We treat it like a suburb of our city. Now imagine taking the train back and forth, people can be drinking, smoking…then you can come back hungover in the sleeping car.
Or if you were a businessman, wouldn't you rather be able to use your phone and computer on the trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles than just be stuck on a plane?
Then there are the benefits of all the jobs that will be created by it. These are good government jobs and the industry jobs to manufacture the trains. We need projects like this right now—projects that unify the country.
I'm not on either side of the aisle. I think this is just a logical choice and I have lots of Republican and Democrat friends who agree with me. I don't think it needs to have anything to do with partisan issues.
GOOD: But it has, of course, become a partisan debate.
Kartheiser: I think the difficult thing about that is—well, bless Al Gore's heart for coming forward with An Inconvenient Truth—but, unfortunately, it seems to have stuck the green movement into the Democratic corner. I don't think that needs to be the case. Al Gore happens to be a Democrat, but I don't think that the environment should be just part of the liberal agenda. It really has nothing to do with politics.
We're way behind the ball here on high-speed rail. We're 30 years late…40, 50 years late to the party. But that doesn't mean that we can't still crash the party and do it in a way that's big and great and American and create something amazing.
We'll need some federal money for sure. It's not going to be all private. But in the end, it's going to bring so much money into our economy and help the infrastructure of our country so much. It's really building for the future, running away from the past that's just been wasting money on roads, roads, roads. We can't just keep continuing to cover our country with asphalt.
You read about how China is already completely invested in this. They have thousands of miles of high-speed rail tracks already in their country. They know they're building for the future.
Go to MadFastTrains.com right now to send your senators a message in support of HSR.