Trains For America

More choices for better transportation

Are state DOT’s capable of handling Obama’s high-speed rail plan?

Pat pointed to Mark Stencel’s Congressional Quarterly article this past weekend about the political hurdles Obama’s federal HSR plan faces. One of these issues is well, federalism itself. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a good piece about how woefully unprepared the state’s Department of Transportation is for implementing any sort of passenger rail improvements. This is despite the fact that Altanta is supposed to be a regional HSR hub under the plan. Here’s what one metropolitan Atlanta policymaker said:

“Let’s face it, our Department of Transportation has for years been primarily a department of highways,” said Chick Krautler, director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

That’s hardly surprising; this is the same DOT that allowed metro Atlanta to become the hellish asphalt sprawl we know today. When endless freeway widening and traffic engineering cause issues in my hometown of Knoxville, TN, people say “Gee, this place is becoming just like Atlanta.”

And the article rightly frets about what this backwardness means for Atlanta’s position as the cultural and economic capital of the South. North Carolina and Virginia, as we’ve seen here at TFA, are taking the initiative when it comes to rail, and it’s helping them to stay vibrant and enticing in a tumultuous national economy. But hey, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce President Sam Williams isn’t worried. At least they’re not as backwards as South Carolina!

On the other hand, he said: “Virginia and North Carolina are way, way ahead of us, probably by 20 years. I have been very disappointed that GDOT has not gotten onto this thing a lot sooner. But South Carolina’s worse off than we are. I think this is a great shot in the arm to rejuvenate Georgia and South Carolina.”

Well, I suppose. Whatever helps them sleep at night. And we’ve known for a while that GDOT isn’t the only one in trouble. But there’s no time like the present to start retooling your state’s rickety and traditional DOT for a more sustainable transportation future.

Filed under: Regional USA Passenger Rail, United States High Speed Rail, ,

Obama high-speed rail press conference

Now could you have imagined this happening a year ago? Obama, Biden, and LaHood were all present to go over the administration’s vision for high-speed rail in the United States. If you’re looking for substantive new information, for instance how the upcoming general transportation bill may affect HSR, or how exactly stimulus money is going to be doled out (wait until this summer, apparently), you might be disappointed. The rhetoric, however, was delightful, touching on convenience, jobs, congestion, the environment, and the connections with good public transport. Here’s some quotes, courtesy of the White House website.

What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city. No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes. (Laughter.) Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. It is now. It is happening right now. It’s been happening for decades. The problem is it’s been happening elsewhere, not here.

And from Biden:

With high-speed rail system, we’re going to be able to pull people off the road, lowering our dependence on foreign oil, lowering the bill for our gas in our gas tanks. We’re going to loosen the congestion that also has great impact on productivity, I might add, the people sitting at stop lights right now in overcrowded streets and cities. We’re also going to deal with the suffocation that’s taking place in our major metropolitan areas as a consequence of that congestion. And we’re going to significantly lessen the damage to our planet. This is a giant environmental down payment.

It’s great talk, and hopefully it means more action in the future. Unfortunately, there was no talk of restoring routes such as the Pioneer and the full Sunset Limited as part of America’s secondary routes. The new route map presented by the administration is basically a prettier version of the old map. And as the CAHSR blog points out, further HSR funding will have to go through the same congressional process as highway and other “surface transportation projects.” So don’t worry, there are still lots of legislative battles to come.

Further reading: New York Times, the official press release

UPDATE: Naturally, not everyone is happy to see progress in American high-speed rail. In fact, some people still think it’s a waste of money, even though it has proven remarkably successful and popular in other developed (and, embarrassingly, developing) countries. Such regressive thinking is only possible at a handful of places in the entire world, one of them being the Cato institute. Pat just recently pointed this out in an e-mail to me, it’s from ABC News:

It’s a huge investment that Daniel Mitchell, senior fellow at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, called “just ludicrous,” given the tanking economy.

“If California voters want to throw money down a rat hole for high-speed rail, then let them,” Mitchell said. “At least that is not going to cost the taxpayers of Minnesota and South Carolina any money.

“You might as well have the government invest in nuclear-powered bicycles,” Mitchell added. “That’s probably the only thing I could imagine that would be more of a waste of money than inter-city rail.”

The Cato Institute probably thinks nuclear powered bicycles are another “weird European thing” that people ride around on in the Netherlands… while eating baguettes and singing The Internationale.

As Pat says, the weakness of his argument is made apparent by the desperate rhetoric. Yep.

AND FURTHERMORE! Pat Lynch here. In view of the intense interest in the story and the giddy willingness of some opponents to lie make unfortunate and unfounded misstatements of known facts, here (again) is a bit of informaiton concerning distances between American cities as compared to European cities where trains routinely travel at 200 mph.

This comes from the “comments” section on a post below. It states the obvious, but does it so perfectly, I moved it to the front page.

You can look at a map and see that many American cities are well situated for true European style HSR. Here are a few facts (with thanks to  Loren Petrich.

I suggest demanding numbers from anyone who makes such density assertions. once worked out some numbers, comparing Paris – Lyon to Chicago – St. Louis:

Paris: 12m
Lyon: 1.8m
Distance: 289 mi / 466 km
Chicago: 9.8m
St. Louis: 2.8m
Distance: 297 mi / 479 km

To which I add London – Paris and NYC – DC:

London: 14m
Paris: 12m
Distance: 289 mi / 465 km
New York City: 19m
Washington, DC: 5.3m
Distance: 227 mi / 366 km

Additional sets of cities I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Populations are of metropolitan areas, distances are Google-Maps driving distances from the first city to the second.

As always, follow the money. Opponents of rail improvements get their money from highway, trucking, and airline special interests.

Filed under: United States High Speed Rail, ,

Obama, now as president, speaks up for high-speed rail

The latest hot gossip in the smart transportation blogs today: Obama’s comments yesterday in Ft. Myers, FL about sprawl, smart growth, and, critically, high-speed rail. Here’s the key quote from Transportation for America, which has the transcript:

It’s imagining new transportation systems. I’d like to see high speed rail where it can be constructed. I would like for us to invest in mass transit because potentially that’s energy efficient. And I think people are a lot more open now to thinking regionally…

The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over. I think that Republicans, Democrats, everybody… recognizes that’s not a smart way to design communities. So we should be using this money to help spur this sort of innovative thinking when it comes to transportation.

That will make a big difference.

It’s nothing we didn’t hear quite often during the election[1, 2, 3], but it means something more when he’s actually in power. Also, his tying together of intercity rail, transit, and smart growth shows that he’s got someone on his team who has the right idea about 21st century transportation. The comments are reassuring after a lack of administration action making rail a priority in the stimulus, but we’ve still yet to see him take any real action in favor of Amtrak or HSR as president. This year should give him plenty of opportunities, however, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on each one.

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

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