Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Seattle Times: A coming rennaisance for intercity rail?

Here’s a nice read by Neal Peirce of the Seattle Times. With Obama’s whistlestop train tour to Washington about to start, Peirce gives a nice overview of recent developments, including the Amtrak reauthorization bill and the passage of the CAHSR bond. Importantly, he includes some statistics about passenger rail in the stimulus package, but wisely says that any transformation of our national rail service is going to take more initiative than a symbolic inauguration train ride.

But there’ll be tests. First up: Will railroads get a break in the massive economic-stimulus package now being debated (and fiercely fought over by states and localities)? The States for Passenger Rail Coalition reports its 31 member states have over $1.4 billion worth of ready-to-go, state-sponsored, city-to-city projects. Passenger trains are “penciled in” at $2 billion in the stimulus bill draft of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

But without strong presidential backing, rails could too easily lose out as not being “shovel-ready” — even though Amtrak could, for example, hire more people, and move quickly to bring equipment into its overhaul shops in Indiana and Delaware. Track-repair work everywhere could be accelerated. And there are many areas where new track can be added on existing routes, cutting back on the delays for freight trains that often slow Amtrak trains.

One big need: Refurbishing the Northeast Corridor, which handles close to 140 Acela and regional trains daily. Most of its electrification is 70 years old. The 1873-vintage masonry arch tunnel at Baltimore needs replacement — especially its sharp curve that limits southbound trains to 30 miles an hour. The 961-foot Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey, more than 90 years old, actually has to swing open, stopping all trains, to let marine vessels pass through. Other bridges and tunnels are in dire shape. Such projects may not be shovel-ready, but they’re crucial, and will need the new administration’s support.

There’s little doubt the public wants modern high-speed rail service — just note Californians’ recent approval of $9 billion for a 220-mile-per-hour line to link all major cities from Sacramento to San Diego. Regions from the Midwest to Texas to Florida and the South’s Piedmont area to the Pacific Northwest need to make parallel progress soon. In the process, there’ll be no substitute for a reformed and strong Amtrak, backed by the White House, willing to set high standards and raise the huge budgets equal to repairing a half-century’s negligence.

That’s a thought for Obama as he debarks at Washington’s Union Station and walks through its gloriously restored Great Hall.


Filed under: Uncategorized

State politicians talking about HSR, but still directing stimulus towards roads

I hope everyone had a merry Christmas, but it’s time for both us and our elected leaders to get back to business. There’s been an increasing buzz over the past few days about the DOT’s request for high-speed rail plans. Here’s an op-ed piece by Republican Congressman Mike Castle from Delaware. He seems to get it:

Traffic congestion on our highways is a major economic issue for our country – affecting everything from fuel consumption to business productivity. We are taking steps to address the highway congestion in our region, but expanding capacity and widening roadways alone will not solve this problem.

It is for this reason that I have been one of the staunchest supporters of Amtrak and commuter rail. This year, Amtrak carried nearly 11 million passengers on its Northeast Corridor system, while emitting less than 0.2 percent of the transportation industry’s greenhouse gases. As I see it, this means that 11 million fewer travelers are on our roadways, intersections and toll lanes – preventing further congestion and pollution in our area.

Since coming to Congress in 1993, I have worked to persuade our nation’s leaders of the potential that rail systems hold to modernize our infrastructure and help lift our economy.

The good news for Delawareans is that, this fall, the United States Congress took the next step in bringing true high-speed passenger rail to the Northeast Corridor by passing legislation that sets forth an open competition requesting proposals for the design, finance, construction, operation and maintenance of high-speed service between New York and Washington.

Here’s a similar piece from New York State Assembleyman Sam Hoyt:

Just last week, the federal Department of Transportation took its first action on creating 11 “corridors” for advanced high-speed rail. One of those corridors is here in the Empire State. But it’s not a done deal.

By September, New York has to make the case to the Obama administration that the Empire State Corridor should get the funds to go forward. The competition will be fierce. State governments have to demonstrate commitment.

I certainly agree with Hoyt’s sentiment, but New York can’t just make a case to the Obama administration that HSR in the state is a good idea. While we do need to be letting our new president know what our transportation priorities should be in the 21st century, this request for bids by the USDOT requires action on our part. People like Hoyt need to be talking with local business and community leaders, perhaps leading the charge for New York State to submit its own plan to the feds.

As recent events have made clear, we can’t rely on the new administration to make the right choices when it comes to where our transportation money is going. This article from Bloomberg news points out that states are targeting stimulus spending to roads, not rail. There’s two failures there. The first is the failure of the federal government to provide guidelines as to usage of the money, and the second is the failure of states to apply this money to smarter projects. People like Assembleyman Hoyt may not be able to make much of a difference for the initial problem, but he can certainly try to do something about the second one.

Something  funny: the article I linked has the headline “Rail Takes Back Seat as States Target Obama Stimulus for Road.” Has rail ever been in the front seat in this country? The car metaphor tells us no.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Politics, United States High Speed Rail

Surging rail popularity puts pressure on stations

North Carolina has wisely been investing in its passenger rail service in recent years, a practice that us neighbors in Tennessee could learn a thing or two from. However, speed improvements, coupled with the general surge in train ridership across the nation, has put unprecedented pressure on stations such as Raleigh’s. From the Raleigh News and Observer:

Even before next year’s expansion, crowding at Raleigh’s station has forced some Wake County riders to try other Amtrak stations in Cary and Durham. Simmons lives in North Raleigh, but he drives to Durham when he has to catch a train because it’s easier to find parking there.

Meanwhile, Amtrak asks riders to catch a ride or take a taxi to the 4,720-square-foot Raleigh station.

“But that only gets us so far,” said Mike Jerew, Amtrak operations manager for North Carolina. “We don’t want to stunt our growth. We’re hoping people aren’t turned off by our current situation. We’re strapped at this facility.”

I’m sure if the Raleigh-Durham International airport were experiencing crowding to this degree, local leaders would be scrambling to expand it. Let’s hope that Raleigh politicians aren’t going to let potential customers for local businesses commute to other towns to catch the train. How about a train station the city can be proud of?

Filed under: Amtrak

Ontario economic advisers know that smart infrastructure = rail

Not sure any level of our governmental structure has quite realized this yet. In the Canadian province of Ontario, a report commissioned by the government’s economic advisers has suggested that a high-speed rail network is key to tackling both the environmental crisis and the economic slowdown. From the Toronto Star:

Written by a team of civil engineers at the University of Toronto, the report estimates the total cost of infrastructure work at up to $27.5 billion. But they say their recommendations address the two most pressing issues today – global warming and global recession.

The report proposes 560 kilometres of high-speed electric track that runs from Toronto north to Orillia, east to Peterborough and west to a corridor that includes Waterloo, Hamilton and Niagara Falls. It would take at least a decade to build and cost anywhere from $4 billion to $20 billion, depending on the route and technology chosen.

The rail system would help create a high-density “mega-region” by improving transportation and attracting what the report calls well-paid “creative” jobs, such as those in aerospace, finance and telecommunications.

Of course, this plan means very little at the moment. It has yet to be endorsed by the Premier of Ontario, but it’s the kind of forward-thinking proposal that seems lacking in American transportation thought. It creates immediate jobs, it attracts high-tech companies, it prepares the country for a more sustainable future. This is a stark contrast to what Obama has shown us so far. As Streetsblog points out, he apparently thinks you can have a “green dream team” without including the Secretary of Transportation. Whoops.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail

Schwarzenegger essay on infrastructure hits Newsweek

Newsweek brings in the California governor to make some important points on transportation policy and infrastructure. He is hitting one of our favorite themes: the transportation gap with every other nation on earth.

An important highlight follows, and here is a link to the entire thing.

We’re a society where e-mail, handheld devices, videoconferencing and thousands of satellites in orbit keep us connected. So why do Americans stand in long security lines at the airport, in our socks, just to sit in the terminal for hours as our flights get delayed because of overcrowded airport runways?

None of this makes sense in America. It doesn’t make sense that in the greatest country on Earth we still rely on trains that go the same speed as they did 100 years ago, so our shipping times and commutes are longer than other countries. It doesn’t make sense that we drive across unsafe bridges like the one that collapsed in Minnesota and live behind inadequate levees like those that failed in New Orleans.

If we were to come up with an analogy, I’d compare our situation to running a company. Imagine trying to compete in today’s business world of BlackBerrys, e-mail alerts, videoconferences and PowerPoint when all you have is an IBM Selectric typewriter and a single telephone landline. You’re going to get beat. And when you think about America’s aging infrastructure, we’re going to get beat, too—by our competitors China, India, Europe and Brazil. Travel overseas and you see faster commuter trains, better public transportation, double-decker freeways, and more efficient ports. Meanwhile, infrastructure spending as a share of gross domestic product in the United States has dropped 25 percent over the past 20 years. So, government spending is at an all-time high, while investment in our critical infrastructure is at a historic low.

Filed under: International High Speed Rail, Passenger Rail Politics, Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy, Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail

Conservative rail advocate, Paul Weyrich, dies

The New York Times online has the news. He has a sordid grab bag of lamentable beliefs, but he was strictly right on transit and intercity rail.

Published: December 18, 2008

Filed at 12:29 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who coined the phrase ”moral majority” and helped turn social conservatives into a powerful force in the Republican Party, died Thursday. He was 66.

Weyrich’s death was announced by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank that he had helped to create.

One of the discussin groups highlighted the last Weyrich column on transportation. His enlightened and intelligent approach should guide conservative thought.

As talk about infrastructure stimulus heats up and as state leaders opportunity to advance new transportation goals in Wisconsin that meet the challenges of the 21st century. In addition to spurring ourprepare a wish list of projects to propose, we have a historiceconomy, targeted and wise infrastructure stimulus investments should help to solve our biggest transportation problems and produce real results for the long haul.

It is not enough to simply spend money. As many have pointed out,
America’s transportation system isn’t just broke, it’s also broken.
And Congress would be wrong to assume that with transportation more is always better. On the contrary, transportation contributes to many of America’s most pressing problems.

Our transportation system is the chief source of our nation’s
addiction to oil, consuming two out of every three barrels, and
leaving America vulnerable to volatile prices and hostile foreign regimes.

Each year Americans waste billions of dollars and millions of
hours stuck in traffic – a problem that is often made worse by
construction of new highways.

Too many transportation projects like Alaska’s infamous “Bridge toNowhere” have been embarrassing boondoggles that erode confidence in government and divert dollars from more productive uses. Clearly, not every infrastructure dollar is equally well spent. Asdepartments of transportation across the country eagerly offer wish lists, what rules should be established?
There must be a commitment to spend for results rather than simply to inject dollars into the economy. The current federal transportation
system primarily collects gas taxes from the states and then pumps
those dollars back based on outdated formulas forged by political
compromises that had nothing to do with achieving national goals.
For decades, the federal government has spent billions of dollars on
highway projects with little evaluation and no accountability. That
must change. Spending must be based on allocating dollars where they will yield the greatest results and guided by clear goals for what the transportation system should accomplish.
Thus the next Congress should spend taxpayers’ money more wisely by focusing transportation dollars on solving our nation’s biggest
problems. Federal transportation money should be spent only on
projects that produce real results over the long haul – for example,
by reducing our dependence on oil, alleviating congestion, improving
safety and supporting healthy, sustainable communities.
For its part, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and other
state DOTs should report on the results of how transportation stimulus money was spent. That sounds like common sense, but it would actually be a major advance. States should report back on the extent to which the projects funded with stimulus money increased or decreased jobs, energy security, carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle miles traveled.
This accountability will help make sure money is not misspent.
In doing so, a transportation stimulus should move the nation toward a vision of the future and also protect the nation’s existing
transportation assets. Emphasis should be placed on expanding clean, efficient transportation choices for Americans by prioritizing
investment of new funds for street cars, light rail, commuter rail,
rapid bus service, high-speed intercity rail and other forms of modern
public transportation. The stimulus should allocate at least as much
money to these transportation choices as to roads and highways. Doing so will encourage transportation investments that build dynamic and accessible communities, where more Americans can walk, bike or take transit to get where they need to go. Meanwhile, stimulus money allocated to highways and bridges must first address long-deferred maintenance and repair projects instead of new highway expansions.
Here in Wisconsin, a stimulus package could put people to work on
vital projects we will need for the future, such as the Kenosha-Racine- Milwaukee commuter rail line, high speed intercity
rail that connects our major metropolitan areas and fixing Wisconsin’s 1,300 structurally deficient bridges. These aren’t just good jobs programs to get through the recession. These are projects that will improve our economy for the 21st century.
By ensuring that infrastructure stimulus money is spent wisely, we
can ensure that Americans put back to work today can feel proud of
what they’ve built for the future.

Bruce Speight is an Advocate with the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, http://www.wispirg. org.
Kenosha Streetcar Society member Paul M. Weyrich, a Racine native, is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.

ANOTHER VIEW: The Guardian has a rather settling analysis of Weyrich’s life and accomplishments. Not all rosy stuff. Moreover, Ian Williams’ fine column links to TFA, for which we are appreciative. Here is a tasty sample and the necessary link for the feast.

And the interesting thing about the rabid anti-communist radicals like Weyrich was how they emulated the unscrupulousness of the Third International in going after their targets with a combination of absolute ruthlessness and manipulation of front organisations. From the persecution of Bill Clinton (for all the wrong reasons) to the swiftboating of John Kerry, his cabal of cheque-wielders were behind the plots.

In triumphant mode at Bush’s re-election, Weyrich declared: “There are 1,500 conservative radio talkshow hosts. You have Fox News. You have the internet, where all the successful sites are conservative. The ability to reach people with our point of view is like nothing we have ever seen before!”

And yet, reality has this gravitational effect. It is entirely fitting that as he shuffles off his mortal coil, we can look around and see why Americans looked on his works and despaired. The shoe is on the other foot as protégée George Bush shuffles shame-faced off the world stage. The meltdown of the casino economy, the nadir of American prestige, the stalemate in Iraq and Afghanistan – these are all suitable epitaphs for the world Weyrich made.

Filed under: Passenger Rail Transportatio Policy

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December 2008