Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Thinking on Transportation and Infrastructure

Two articles published today make strong cases for the need to rethink our national transportation and infrastructure policy in order to alleviate congestion and safety hazards. Writing in Washington Monthly, Philip Longman of the New America Foundation makes the case that America cannot address its transportation woes by expanding highways. "We need to conceive of a transportation future in which each mode of transport is put to its most sensible use, deployed collaboratively instead of competitively."

Longman offers as a case study I-81 through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which has become congested with truck traffic seeking an alternative to the major cities and tolls along I-95. Widening I-81 would be cost prohibitive, so Virginia is helping Norfolk Southern upgrade its Crescent Corridor route which parallels I-81.

Upgrading rail lines like the Crescent Corridor should be prime candidates for President-elect Obama's plan for infrastructure investment to help resusciate the U.S. economy, Longman says.
"All over the country there are opportunities like the I-81/Crescent Corridor deal, in which relatively modest amounts of capital could unclog massive traffic bottlenecks, revving up the economy while saving energy and lives. Many of these projects have already begun, like Virginia's, or are sitting on planners' shelves and could be up and running quickly."
He goes on to site a study for the National Academy of Engineering by the Millennium Institute that shows how spending between $250 billion and $500 billion to improve the rail infrastructure could get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the highways, provide ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption and control the growth of logistics costs.
"Yet despite this astounding potential, virtually no one in Washington is talking about investing any of that $1 trillion in freight rail capacity. Instead, almost all the talk out of the Obama camp and Congress has been about spending for roads and highway bridges, projects made necessary in large measure by America's overreliance on pavement-smashing, traffic-snarling, fossil-fuel-guzzling trucks for the bulk of its domestic freight transport."
The U.S. rail industry, which hauls 137 percent more freight traffic than it done in 1970 on half the track it had back then is constrained for growth but cannot attract the private capital needed for expansion, Longman points out.
"The alternative is for the public to help pay for rail infrastructure. Actually, it's not much of a choice. Unlike private investors, the government must either invest in shoring up the railroads' overwhelmed infrastructure or pay in other ways. Failing to rebuild rail infrastructure will simply further move the burden of ever-increasing shipping demands onto the highways, the expansion and maintenance of which does not come free. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (hardly a shill for the rail industry) estimates that without public investment in rail capacity 450 million tons of freight will shift to highways, costing shippers $162 billion and highway users $238 billion (in travel time, operating, and accident costs), and adding $10 billion to highway costs over the next twenty years."
Public-private parternships to expand rail capacity would be a win-win, he maintains.

"It doesn't involve pricing or guilt-tripping people out of their automobiles. Electrifying and otherwise improving rail infrastructure would indeed facilitate the coming of true high-speed rail passenger service to the United States, a goal Obama committed to as a candidate. But its success wouldn't depend on persuading a single American to take the train instead flying or driving. Indeed, with its promise of making driving more enjoyable and less dangerous, the proposal bridges the divide between auto-hating, Euroland-loving enviros and those who see access to the open road as an American birthright."

USA Today business travel columnist David Grossman supports investment in rail to help address the nation's gridlocked air travel network.
"A major overhaul of our nation's air and rail transportation systems is essential to support business travel and tourism over the long term and contribute to a robust economy. A significant investment in our transportation infrastructure now could help generate many of the millions of new jobs we need to reduce unemployment and stave off the effects of the current economic crisis, while building a foundation for future economic growth."
Among his five recommendation are high-speed rail lines linking major airports and city centers and running between major cities up to 500 miles apart.

The Obama administration is torn between the pressure to jumpstart the economy by offering programs that put people back to work as quickly as possible and the need for investments that are sustainable and address our long term problems resulting from congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on imported oil. In the long haul, the latter will pay greater dividends for America.

1 comment:

  1. It's important to recognize that almost all the benefits from this trend can (initially, at least) be realized with little or no direct investment. Beyond that point, however, the issue gets more complicated.

    At this point in time it appears that we're not likely to witness anything like the summer fuel spikes of the past three years, and re-allocation of resources due to natural economic forces should buy us a little more time. A couple of friends of mine who drive professionally tell me that the demand for long-distance hauls is down considerably.

    But the underlying global economic pressures which began driving these trends remain in force, albeit reduced or suspended by the slowdown. And while those conditions hold, I think it's important that the most attention toward rebuilding our rail network - both freight and sustainable passenger.

    In most cases, that translates into those areas where expanding exurban/suburban services directly conflict with a growing freight traffic burden.....on the fringes of the largest metroplitan areas. The freight roads can be expected to come up with their own funding in areas where passenger-service conflicts are not a factor.

    Finally, as soon as possible, a slow but persistent campaign should be developed to educate the public, beginning with "opinion leaders" and other news junkies, of the high capital costs of the projects and the rationale behind the likely reluctance of the freight roads to embrace them "carte blanche". This issue is, regrettably, one which lends itself well to the usual ideological polarization.