Sunday, December 7, 2008

"We Don't Need Roads"

I'm not talking about Doc Brown's closing line at the end of Back to the Future. I'm talking about Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. The President-elect is taking some heat among rail and transit advocates for a statement on his economic stimulus plan that:
"We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money."
What's missing, of course, is any mention of rail transit, be it HSR, Amtrak, commuter rail, light rail or subways. Robert Cruickshank at California High Speed Rail Blog believes Obama is taking a dual track approach of economic stimulus spending on immediate impact project, i.e. roads, and " a long-term infrastructure investment package that will give a bigger boost to sustainable transportation like HSR." He goes on to critique the strategy:
"A dual-track infrastructure approach strikes me as a fundamentally flawed way to handle the current crisis, especially if the first and more immediate track directs billions towards roads. That's exactly what we should NOT be doing with our stimulus money. Roads don't build long-term economic growth, unless we're planning to follow Robert Toll's insane advice and reinflate the housing bubble. The nation's bridges do need repair and that's fine, but we need new road capacity like we need a hole in the head.

Economic stimulus should meet two needs at once: produce immediate jobs and spending, and fuel long-term growth. FDR's New Deal projects did exactly that - the nation's nascent highway network needed a LOT of investment and improvement in 1933, from roads to bridges. The New Deal helped seed the economic boom of the 1950s in that way. They didn't sit around building canal towpaths."
The challenge facing Obama and the nation seems to be, at least to me, balancing pragmatism and idealism. Because of our current economic situation, "shovel-ready projects" are going to get funded first. Highways have an advantage in most jurisdictions because agencies have a backlog of projects to be completed while rail authorities are bogged down in the lengthy bureaucratic processes of gaining environmental approval, obtaining funding, etc. In short, the game is rigged.

Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi made this poignant observation in today's New York Times: “During the New Deal, Robert Moses got the most money because he always had projects ready to go.”

Long Island Congressman Tim Bishop, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also notes the two-tiered approach, but sheds more light on how it will go and why rail might not get the short shrift.

"The immediate focus will be smaller projects that can start quickly. Later will come grander efforts — Mr. Bishop calls them “game-changers” — like the Long Island Rail Road’s proposed third track between Floral Park and Hicksville.

“We’re going to get two bites at the apple,” he said. “What we want initially is projects that can be operational within 60 to 90 days, that are ready to go and the only thing that’s holding them back is money.”

Such fast-track projects will feature small-bore, mundane-sounding needs like highway improvements and sewer extensions."
Established rail operators have no shortage of such projects. Long Island Rail Road President Helena Williams has a wish list that includes: better traffic controls in Jamaica, pedestrian railings at stations, new concrete ties and rehabilitation of the century-old Atlantic Avenue viaduct in Brooklyn.

Clearly there is far too little money to fund all the merit-worthy rail projects around the country, but America's economy has to be nursed backed to health before all of them can be built. And we may have to fix some roads and bridges to keep things from getting worse.


  1. Ellis, I think we should be mindful that to 98% of the "folk out there', transportation means autos and highways....for a relative few, it also means air.

    While we both know that maintenance of a Long Distance passenger rail system takes on the fervor and passion of a social issue in a small segment of society, meaningful rail travel is confined to the metropolitan areas that have (or potentially could have) regional (commuter; I've started using the term "regional' after learning from a New York Times article that Metro North now boards more passengers at the total of other stations than it does at Grand Central) service, and the limited number of intercity markets (principally the NECorridor) where there is sufficient population density to support fast, frequent, and reliable service. The prevailing "one a day" on the Long Distance Amtrak routes may be needed for political expediency, it is simply "not what it's all about' in moving people during the 21st century.

    But I'm confident that passenger rail will see infrastructure $$$$ from the President-elect's initiative, but such will be to publicly owned passenger rights of way.

  2. I'm hopeful that in making spending decisions Obama & Co. will look at where Americans are heading when it comes to travel options as well as where they have been. The trends point to a shift from highway to transit. The question is where does it lie on the scale between trickle and torrent.