Thursday, December 16, 2010

Passenger Rail Hangs in the Balance in the U.S.A.

Made in Taiwan.

Posted by: Noël Jones

In a recent speech I heard from President Obama, I was happy to hear him mention the need to develop passenger rail three different times. He referred to being currently outdone in passenger rail development by several European and Asian countries--namely China--as our "Sputnik moment," referring to when in 1957 the U.S. had allowed its space program to lag behind, and the Russians put the first robotic space craft into orbit around Earth, called Sputnik 1. That, Obama said, was the moment we knew we had to get it in gear and put some serious funding behind space development if we were going to remain a leader in technology among world nations. America rose to the challenge, and a decade later, put the first man on the moon. Our president is calling this another such urgent moment, as well as an opportunity for job creation that cannot be outsourced in a time when Americans need good jobs more than anything.

But without meaningful funding allocations to develop passenger rail nationwide, it will never happen. And with Republican governors around the country obstructing rail projects that were already approved, even to the point of rejecting millions of dollars in funding, as reported in The Economist last week, these words, sadly, are meaningless.

This struggle brings up an interesting question that I wanted to pose: FDR--hero president of the Great Depression or father of the national debt? On one hand, Democrats really love FDR because he used

a profusion of executive orders to create the New Deal (something Progressives which President Obama would do), which guided the nation out of the Great Depression and gave millions of starving Americans good jobs building infrastructure. However, Republican critics say that it was all done on borrowed money, and that especially by creating the Social Security program, FDR ensured that the U.S. would never get out of debt.

It's easy to see that we desperately need to catch up with other countries in terms of passenger rail development, as it spurs economic development, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and it would drastically reduce our carbon emissions, in addition to creating much needed jobs.

But the question is, how do we pay for it? And at what price will we refuse to pay for it?


tachitup said...

I've ridden the trains in Europe quite a bit and Japan not so much and have always been amazed at the convenience. Great schedules, not cheap but affordable.
I've wondered, but never researched how they do that. Anyone know how much tax money goes into it or does the culture/demographics support the system financially?
In the UK it's much better to just take the bus.

noel jones said...

tachitup--good question--I was wondering the same thing--the critics of developing passenger rail in the U.S. alway point to the cost of building it as the reason not to do it, and yet all over Europe and Asia, they have managed to find a way to make it work. i would be interested to know whether there are any studies out there as to whether or not these systems pay for themselves over time in terms of rider fares and economic development.

it it will cost billions to build a nationwide system, but what about the billions that the system would make when millions of people all over the nation start commuting this way and paying those daily fares?

Amend said...

our nation spends billions maintaining highways and subsidizing the airline industry. those who gain financially from that current system are obviously going to be against passenger rail, and will lobby heavily to keep the status quo(just like how the oil industry fought the development of the electric car). the question becomes; do we bow to the pressure and influence of lobbyists and industry, or do we instead pressure those we've elected to change the paradigm for the good of the people?

noel jones said...

i vote for pressure.

Alan Raisman said...

I heard that Japanese rail is highly used because the Japanese government made tolls on their roads so expensive.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Response Part I

The following link will address somewhat, but not completely answer all questions pertaining to HSR in America. It is a commentary called Red Train, Blue Train from "The Bellows" Blog. You can paste this link into your browser to read it:

Some of the reader comments following the post are interesting but a lot are also just plain stupid. There are perfectly good reasons for this stupidity, which I'll touch on below. Kudos to Ken Jones for bringing this article to may attention. As in the past I'll stress that any evaluation of passenger rail in America, like this Economist piece among others, must be accompanied by a reading of the book "Waiting on a Train" by James McCommons. He lays out the whole story from the point of view of all the players and as someone who has ridden the existing system coast-to-coast.

Part II to follow...


Dennis R. Lieb said...

Response Part II

In conclusion, I will point out three key issues that can not be overlooked;

1) Most critics of passenger rail system need, efficiency and cost in America are coming at this issue as individuals who have had no life experience whatsoever with what a well functioning, rail transit system looks like or what it would mean to the progress of this country since we dismantled ours long before most decision-making adults could have ridden them.

2) Some of the most successful regional rail projects in this country (including Texas and the Deep South) were shepherded through to completion by Republicans. It shouldn't be a party ideology issue. Unfortunately, under the current fervor of far right partisan politics, these progressive leaders are marginalized for their positions - anything having to do with benefiting the public-at-large has been turned into some kind of creeping socialism scare tactic for election purposes.

3) One thing that unfortunately doesn't get discussed enough is the bad politics involved in local decision making. People on the pro-rail side talk about bad policy from the LVPC and the other anti-train/pro highway expansionists. Though I count myself as one of the LVPC's heaviest detractors, the bad policy issue is a false argument. Bad politics rule the day.

The real truth in the Valley is that a handful of big land owners in Lehigh County have the County Commissioners and Executive over a political barrel. They want to develop all their farmland into any kind of sprawl crapola they can get funded, even if this means we remain the only region in the country where mega-warehousing operations are still expanding despite the nationally recognized damage they do to rural areas. These are the same people keeping our politicians in office.

These developments depend on huge infrastructure improvement costs to be footed by the, local transportation funding remains in their backyards to expand the road systems to service that development in detriment to any rail progress. Meantime our politicians cow-tow to their backer's whims to stay in office by making irresponsible and disingenuous public statements about "getting all the bad influences of the big city transferred to the Valley" if trains come here. Obviously, RT 78 and the private buses already provide access to that influence without any of passenger rail's benefits. These are political scare tactics pure and simple.

The LVPC plays the same game, making policy decisions based not on ideological positions (whether good or bad) but on this old boy network of game playing - and I mean this literally. We are now in a position where getting anything done with rail while the current regime is still controlling the LVPC - our local Metropolitan Planning Organization controling the flow of our grant funding - is nearly impossible. Unless they are ousted or we combine efforts with Allentown and Bethlehem in order to figure a legal funding end run around them, it would be foolish to think we can accomplish anything. I'm still willing to fight that fight, even if it means Easton goes it alone. I've got plenty of time.


Amend said...

good points Dennis. Mike Kaiser of the LVPC is definitely an obstacle to change. i think we in Easton have got to come to realize that the rest of the Lehigh Valley isn't all that interested in what's in the best interest of Easton. i say we go it alone.

Anonymous said...

Easton has a much more direct relationship to NYC than does Allentown, Bethlehem (and even Philadelphia) for that matter. Its worth it to go it alone if need be. It will make Easton.

noel jones said...

Dennis--thanks for the thorough and informative comments. I agree we should go it alone if we absolutely have to, but that would be a shame because it would be great to be able to travel to Bethlehem and Allentown to go to dinner, shop, get to the airport etc. without having to drive or deal with parking.

I know that the mayors of Allentown and Bethlehem are both on board (so to speak) but I realize that there are other powers-that-be in the Valley that are against it, so Easton should just do what it needs to do.