“Anyone Aboard?”


If you’re like me, you curse America’s lack of — or at least not so convenient — cross-country passenger train access whenever you head to New York City, or some such locale. Even before TSA gropes became the law of the land, my disdain for large commercial airports could hardly be quantified. Although, I must say Indy’s new airport is about as delightful as an airport can be; in fact, it made LaGuardia feel like I’d landed in a toilet. (And Indiana business travelers are also blessed to have wonderful facilities like the Indianapolis Executive Airport, operated by Montgomery Aviation.)

But the fact is rail development requires serious infrastructure dollars, and as Governing reports, don’t expect that money to be invested in rail anytime soon, as American passenger train commuting may be stuck in the station for some time:

The Obama administration is more sympathetic to rail transit than its predecessors. It proposed a historic expansion of the rail passenger system, including building a national high-speed network of bullet trains with an initial $8 billion down payment in stimulus money (with more promised) to a few states for some modest projects to get things going.

The problem is that the newly elected Republican governors of states where much of the money was supposed to go — like Ohio and Wisconsin, and maybe Florida — don’t want it, at least not for high-speed rail. They’ll gladly take it for auto infrastructure like roads, bridges and highways. But U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, Ill., won’t agree to that: It’s accept rail or hit the trail, and the money will go to states that want it.

Recently the greater New York area was stunned by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to pull his state out of a long-planned project — described as the largest public transit program in the country — to build a second rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River to ease the commute by 45 minutes for Jersey residents who work in New York City. With substantial overruns, it was estimated to cost as much as $13 billion. Christie’s state was on the hook for $2.7 billion, plus the added costs for its share of the project, which already is under construction. Much is at stake, including 6,000 construction jobs.

Making significant improvements in rail service in this country seems like a no-brainer. Ridership is increasing. The highways and airways are overburdened. It’s far more energy efficient and cleaner, and compared to cars, it’s safer. If done right, it can be one of the most effective economic development tools available. But it’s also very expensive and requires a sustained commitment over many decades. And right now, governments are deep in debt.

Critics of Obama’s high-speed rail plan make several points. The project will cost far too much in initial outlays and subsidies to justify the benefits, siphoning off the funding of worthier programs, including commuter mass transit. The United States has become a suburbanized society, sprawling over a large land mass, with only a few places having sufficient population density to warrant intercity rail service. To be successful in any area except the Northeast Corridor, high-speed trains would have to make too many stops, and therefore would be too slow to compete.

Given the political changes in the new Congress and in many states, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see many bullet trains whizzing through our future. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all is lost for rail advocates. The incoming chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Florida Republican John Mica, is outspoken in his opposition to the administration’s plan, which he claims is likely to lead to many “slow-speed trains to nowhere.” But he does support what he calls “a better directed high-speed rail program.”
 

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