Saturday, July 26, 2008

Rail Transit Is A Matter Of The New Economic Realities

Rick Esenberg, trapped in the pre-$4-a-gallon-mindset, decides to argue that passenger rail transit is more a matter of faith for some than a matter of economics.

His post is here.

I disagree.

Rick argues that rail is antiquated because it moves people from one fixed point to another.

But modern light rail systems are built with multiple stops - - and can be extended into more suburban settings at longer distances if the riders and residents choose that model.

He says that rail requires subsidies, but forgets to mention that roads are 100% subsidized, and if some politicians get their way, you'll have to pay a toll (a fee, close to a tax) to drive on a road you've already been taxed to help build and maintain.

You'd think continual taxation and double-billing would drive conservatives like Rick to the breaking point, but somehow, the existence of a 100% governmentally-funded highway system that keeps the big government road-building bureaucracies up and running is okey-dokey with them.

Driving does offer motorists a level of freedom to choose a route and a schedule, but we all know how often that's foiled by the orange barrels, rain, snow, or the knucklehead five miles ahead who caused an accident and tied up traffic for hours.

Yeah - - we know that freedom: the freedom to stay stuck in traffic, and if you're on one of those big highways Rick prefers, it's likely to have exits only every few miles, so you sit and enjoy the freedom to be trapped, and delayed.

I was on Amtrak's Hiawatha train to Chicago and back yesterday. The train was packed, and got more crowded when it picked up a large group getting on at the new Mitchell Airport stop.

Amtrak offers Chicago fliers a nice additional choice - - rail service connecting at Mitchell to Midwest Airlines- - so rail can provide alternatives if you are creative in the planning.

And did I mention the freedom from airport parking lot costs?

The federal trust fund that provides highway dollars to the states for 80% of new road construction is basically broke, but the highway lobby wants the fund replenished for the next five-year cycle, and higher gas taxes and tolls are likely to be the solution to keep the construction cycle going.

Of course, that will entail another cycle of repairs and maintenance - - even though driving is tailing off because of spiking gas prices.

Is the solution to keep pushing new roads farther from employment centers, yet charging people more and more taxes and fees to cover this one-dimensional option?

Transit, particularly new rail, including city light rail, commuter lines and the national high-speed network, will, by virtue of economic necessity, become preferred alternatives - - for people with cars and even for people who own them - - because the era of cheap gas and 'free' motoring is over.

That's the new paradigm, whether Rick sees it or not, and to address it, states and the federal government need to get transportation financing spread more evenly between highways and transit, with the highway and road portion devoted more to repairing what we have.


Rick Esenberg said...


You corroborate, rather than contradict my point. I praised the Hiawatha - I love it and ride it - because it takes people between two points to which many people are headed. That doesnm't change the fact that rail - even light rail - requires a fixed route such that the economics work only if lots of people want to travel that route.

While highways are also fixed, they lead to streets that those traveling on the highway can use without having to change their method of transit. If I'm heading to downtown Chicago, the Hiawatha works, if I am not or require nore mobility when I get there, it doesn't.

I am not rigorously opposed to any subsidy ever for rail. But, just as with subsidies for highways, the numbers have to work. You certainly will be able to point out boondoggle highway projects (try the extension of the interstate from Madison through southwestern Wisconsin. Lovely, but no one is on the road), but all I'm going to do is agree that they were bondoggles.

In any event, my point was that, if expanded interurban rail in the Midwest is really important to our regional economy, we ought to be willing to pay for it.

James Rowen said...

I appreciate that you appreciate and use the Hiawatha, and that you recognize that there are highways you call boondoggles.

But it seems that whenever the rail issue is raised, the objection to cost, defined as subsidy, is raised immediately.

And by others - - not you - - but by talk radio, for instance, the cost issue is raised instaneously and hysterically - - but the cost issue when it comes to highways is raised, perhaps, as an afterthought.

Did you object to the extension of I-43 to the southwest when its upgrade was planned, then executed?

Are you objecting to the expansion of I-94 to Illinois from Milwaukee, when the federal data shows no substantial congestion now and no improvement after the new lanes are added?

I agree that roads offer choices for routes as alternatives, but that is most true when it comes to the urban street grid - - and is an excellent argument for using public transportation dollars to repair and improve the roads we have.

The problem with the model being pushed by WisDOT is that it is has been since the 1950's centered on the freeways, which, in fact, offer options at exits that are widely-spaced, and are not available as a quick alternative in congestion because the exit is miles away, and it is illegal to drive on the shoulder to get to an exit.

As we know it now, the freeways damaged the street grid on the north side, along with entire neighborhoods that were built and thrived on that grid.

A series of wide boulevards and arterials surrounding Milwaukee would have been a welcome alternative to the freeways as they approached Milwaukee - - Daniel Finley even supported that - - but WisDOT chose the interstate model to push freeways right through the city rather than use the freeways as what they were intended for: interstate connections, stretching across rural land, linking cities but not bisecting them.