If there is any area of American life that puts paid to the fiction that America’s economic growth was a miracle of the free market, it must be transportation. From the very beginning, with the Federal construction of the Cumberland Road over the Allegheny Mountains in 1811 and the state of New York’s construction of the Erie Canal connecting the Hudson to the Great Lakes in 1817, it has been the state that has directed and channeled the flows of American economic development, putting its stamp on the very land.
For most of post-war American history, that stamp has been made by a Federal (and state) favoritism of highways and roads over rail and other forms of mass transit. This has had enormous social, economic, and political consequences – the rise of the suburb and the decline of the cities, a national dependency on cars and cheap oil as the economic lifeblood of the country, and an increasingly strained overuse of natural resources as basic as land and water. However, as many people have noted, we have a unique opportunity to begin to change this pattern of economic development with the arrival of the Obama administration, which may be the most pro-mass-transit administration in history.
And indeed, this first year so far has seen substantial increases in Federal funding for high-speed rail and other mass transit project, to the tune of X billion. While highway projects still dominate Transportation appropriations, the ratio is beginning to slide more in the direction of mass transit. However, one thing I worry about is the divergence between Federal support for national mass-transit (High-Speed Rail) and local mass-transit (funding for maintenance and operation of existing commuter rail, subways, rapid bus transit, etc.), a divergence that needs to be fixed.
If my hunch about this political trend continuing is right, we could see this moment as similar to the moment right before the railroad boom of the 1850s and 1860s, when the decisions about how we were going to do this massive expansion of transportation infrastructure (using public lands to subsidize corporate issuance of railroad stock) were made. Except that this time, we can do it right.
The Macro Picture – High Speed Rail:
As we can see from this map from the Transportation Department, there is within the Obama administration a vision (and it’s one that’s broadly echoed by mass-transit advocates in Congress and elsewhere) of regional high-speed metro-systems (Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, Chicago/Midwest, New Orleans, the Raleigh Triangle, and the Northeast Corridor) that will eventually expand into a single, national high speed rail network. The grey lines of existing Amtrak service show the way – the short jumps to link Cleveland to Pittsburgh and D.C, Cincinnati to the extended East Coast Corridor (as it really should be called if it’s going to run all the way down to Savannah), New Orleans to the Texas network, and the long jumps to connect New Orleans to Chicago, Houston to Los Angeles, and Chicago to the West Coast Corridor (LA to Vancouver). If those long jumps west look a bit tentative (is Denver somewhere in there? is there actually enough population to justify the Minneapolis to Pacific Northwest route?), that’s only to be expected.
But while the optimistic, futurist, steam-punk fan in me is quite pleased with the thought of a massive supercity potentially stretching from Boston to Atlanta (or comprising all the major cities in Texas, or linking Los Angeles to San Francisco), we do need to make sure that we keep our eye on the nuts and bolts of high speed rail as well as the grand vision.
- Ensuring Smooth Connections to Local Mass Transit – one of the great theoretical advantages of HSR is the convenience of end-terminus travel, the fact that you don’t need to show up two hours early, take your shoes off as you go through security, check your bags, and then when you finally get there, take a long taxi or rental ride into the actual city you want to go. Rail stations, unlike airports, are built in the center of a city, allowing commuters to go from door to door as it were. However we need to make sure that connections between regional/national high speed rail and local mass transit are as smooth as possible – this means making sure that HSR stations are linked to major local stations, eliminating (if possible) the need to go up and down multiple flights of stairs and across long concourses, even possibly unifying the ticketing systems so that the same HSRPass that brought you from Boston to New York in under an hour (once we actually make Acela HSR) should allow you to swipe through into the New York subway and onto the Boston T on your return trip.
- this is especially true since one thing that should be in the back of people’s minds is the eventual need to construct High Speed commuter rail and local mass transit to make local mass transit more convenient than the highway. Hence, compatibility of the travel networks is important in both the long and short-term
- Keep the Price Low – one of the major short-comings of existing high speed rail is that there is not actually much of a price advantage between rail and planes. A standard round trip from New York to Boston, for example, would cost you about $200 by plane and $186 at best on Acela. By comparison, a London-to-Paris (roughly the same distance as New York to Boston) round trip costs only $78 dollars. In part, this is the result of the semi-privatization of Amtrak, which has forced Amtrak to soak its popular express route to generate a profit – when the ultimate social objective isn’t making rail profitable, but rather making mass transportation more environmentally sustainable, which means moving people from cars and airplanes. Ultimately, we need to ensure that high-speed rail fares are lowered, I would argue to at least 1/2 of airplane ticket fares and possibly even with the cost of driving (about $44 for gas round-trip, not counting the cost of owning/renting a car) with substantial discounts for commuters, if we are to make the transition away from air and car travel.
- Re-Nationalize Amtrak – another of the major limitations behind Amtrak is the fact that it has been semi-privatized, which I would argue has made things worse, not better (and I’d actually be interested in seeing whether there’s any empirical evidence that privatizing mass transit improves things), especially because the owners of the track are no longer the owners of the cars. Hence, the owners of the track have little incentive to keep the track in good repair or switch from diesel to electric (the electrification of the entire Northeast Corridor took many years more than it was supposed to, in part because of the reluctance of owners of the New Haven to Boston stretch to make the investment), and especially in California, the profitability of rail freight leads to passenger trains being diverted for long stretches of time. If we are to achieve true high-speed rail and keep fares down to the point where people choose rail over either cars or planes, we have to come to the understanding that this cannot be a question of profits but of public policy, which means making Amtrak a public utility whose only goal should be swift, timely, comfortable, and affordable travel.
The Micro-Picture – Federal Aid to Mass Transit:
As the brief aside above about the future need for High-Speed local mass transit might suggest, another policy change that needs to happen is a movement away from the Federal subsidization of funding highways and roads to funding commuter rail, rapid bus transit, subways, and other forms of mass transit, and from funding construction to funding construction plus maintenance and operations.
In order to advance the cause of mass transit, two changes in Federal transportation funding would seem to solve a number of different problems. First would be to gradually shift the current percentage, while growing the overall transportation funding, so that we begin to move in the right direction without highway interests losing funds (a necessary political compromise), say from the current 96%/4% to something more like 90%/10%, then 80%/20%, and so on as mass transit grows as a percentage of ridership. At the same time, increase the current Federal percentage of mass transit assistance (Federal match is usually 50% for mass transit as opposed to 80% of highways) for maintenance operating expenses, increasing the Federal percentage in line with the percentage of the population that uses it, thus making increased ridership a source of reducing costs for state and local authorities and creating an incentive to shift commuters over to mass transit.
Second, it’s clear from the current disparity of funding that mass transit needs it own support system, with a committee and funding stream more friendly to it – the Energy and Commerce Committee might be a good bet. (To give an example, of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and HUD’s Democrats, none come from the Northeast where mass transit predominates). In terms of funding, I would say that the Federal Transit system should probably be funded through two $10 billion funds, a Capital Fund to fund comprehensive expansions and modernizations of mass transit systems, and a Green Fund, to fund maintenance and operating costs tied to a formula that increases the Federal contribution in line with increasing proportions of ridership. Moreover, I would make both funds contingent on keeping fares down, and establish a smaller program to expand existing subsidized transit fares for the elderly, school-aged children, and the working poor, as well as more generous discounts for commuters.
The ultimate goal of this program, as the map above should indicate, is to expand mass transit usage in major cities whose mass transit systems, in many cases, have not been substantially expanded or modernized in some time, or where mass transit networks simply don’t cover enough ground to truly make them the natural mode of transportation. As this report notes, only in New York City does a majority of workers use public transportation to commute to work. Simply put, there’s not much of either a policy justification or a political coalition for mass transit unless we use Federal policy to at least shift people’s behavior over in the direction of mass transit – Chicago and Philadelphia are at 27%, so a judicious combination of improvement of services and routes and a lowering of fees shouldn’t make it too hard to push that over the 50% mark; L.A would naturally be a huge prize. But beyond the top 10, we need to push to make sure that, at the very least, mass transit is the majority option in metropolitan America. Then and only then would we have a foundational constituency to begin building alliances to suburban commuters with.