U.S. Passenger Rail Needs $353 Billion, Panel Says

That’s the headline on a Bloomberg story covering the recommendations of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. I am tempted to wonder if they also concluded that people need air, food, and water.

The Associated Press’s Sarah Karush writes, on the same topic:

Experts convened by a federal transportation policy commission are recommending a $357.2 billion investment — or $8.1 billion a year — to significantly expand intercity passenger rail service by 2050.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased to read this, and I should not be sarcastic about the report – I am sure they mean well. I just am amazed how you cannot turn around without hearing about how the highways are falling down, the military is threadbare, the FDA needs to conduct thousands more inspections, the schools are failing the country’s children, the police are outgunned, and on and on. The crises are so many and the dollars so limited. Even with a benevolent dictatorship, I have no idea how one would prioritize and allocate the money we have towards the woes we face. Alas, the mechanism we have to decide this is the Congress. The House and Senate have grown too partisan, too fractious, too earmark happy, and too vindictive to begin to craft coherent national policies on the big issues of energy independence, defense, health care, education, and transportation.

Thus we live in a world where more than a century passes since New York City’s heavy rail infrastructure was expanded beyond the Pennsylvania’s tunnels in and out of Penn Station, and yet Ted Stevens’s “Bridge to Nowhere” would have seen the light of day were it not for Katrina and the subsequent media fallout. Where hundreds of millions are spent on airborne lasers, and yet the infantry contends with rifles ill-suited to the grit of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I wonder how many people will read the Bloomberg and AP coverage of the rail study and imagine that it will change anything? I guess, in an ideal world, it could. Even if one hated Amtrak, it would not be hard to craft grants to the states that required competitive bidding for the new services. Yet in the absence of a rail trust fund, the money for such grants comes from the general budget, making any multi-year initiative risky at best, as it would need to survive multiple election cycles before it saw completion.

Another hitch is that the suggested 80-20 Federal-state funding ration imagines that the states do, in fact, have $71.4 billion they will spend on rail in the next 43 years. I find that unlikely. I am glad to see the matching idea put forward though, as it addresses a longstanding problem with funding decisions in this country. If a state has one million dollars to spend on transportation, for example, under current rules they could spend that on rail and get one million dollars worth of infrastructure and jobs out of their investment. If they spend that same million on highway and road work, they can apply to the Federal DOT and use that as their 20% and expect the Federal government to match that four times over. Thus the state’s one million dollar rail investment is now a five million dollar road investment. That means more end-product, more jobs, more largesse to distribute, and all at no extra cost to the state. Is there any wonder why the country is paved over while our rails languish?

Twelve years ago, I compiled a fact sheet to distribute to Congressional offices, and one of the facts I unearthed at the time was the American Automobile Association’s conclusion that a single, modern, well-signaled train track could carry the equivalent of eighteen lanes of highway traffic. Every time I look out my window at the main line, or out the Acela window at the gridlock across I-95 in Connecticut, I think about the fact that with adequate funding, the mainline would represent a 72-lane highway. Think about the latent capacity that represents, think about the ability to tap that with no need to pave over more land, to condemn any additional rights-of-way, or to perform any more environmental impact statements. The rails in the Northeast are just waiting for the right public policy to become a transformational engine of commerce and mobility. The Northeast’s share of $353 billion could sure do a lot to make that happen, but I am not going to hold my breath.

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