From Flickr user DonkeyHotey https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6261650491

Passenger rail and the party platforms

Support for passenger rail has always been bipartisan. But in 2016, it is not possible to pretend that “the parties are all alike.” Let’s give credit to conservatives like Senator Wicker (R-MS) who recognize the importance of passenger rail.

But such officials are working against the 2016 Republican platform, which seems to be more about restating conservative talking points than in providing sustainable passenger rail service.

America on the Move

Our country’s investments in transportation and other public construction have traditionally been non-partisan. Everyone agrees on the need for clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports. President Eisenhower established a tradition of Republican leadership in this regard by championing the creation of the interstate highway system. In recent years, bipartisan cooperation led to major legislation improving the nation’s ports and waterways….

The transportation section of the platform starts well, although anyone who has read the history of the Interstate Highway system knows that while President Eisenhower supported the concept of a national highway network, but was concerned about the details of the proposal.

The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to “coerce people out of their cars.” …

We could argue that there were decades of policy that supported highways to the exclusion of all other modes. Was that “social engineering” meant to “coerce people out of trains?” As late as the 1950s, passenger rail was the most efficient way to get many places, and that only changed because governments decided they preferred cars over trains. That’s social engineering.

Now we make the same pledge regarding the current problems in transportation policy. We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government.

More than a quarter of the Fund’s spending is diverted from its original purpose. One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities….We propose to phase out the federal transit program…

Many in the Republican party seems to have a distaste for cities. That’s beyond the issues we focus on here, but it should be noted that many Republican lawmakers, especially those representing suburban areas, have been consistent supporters of rail and transit, if only because they feel that the more other people use rail, there will be more room for their own cars on the highways.

[We propose to] reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act which can delay and drive up costs for transportation projects.

This is an area where bipartisan support could definitely be found.

We renew our call for repeal of the Davis-Bacon law, which limits employment and drives up construction and maintenance costs for the benefit of unions.

Again, this is beyond the scope of this post, but what about benefits to the workers that unions represent?

Recognizing that, over time, additional revenue will be needed to expand the carrying capacity of roads and bridges, we will remove legal roadblocks to public-private partnership agreements that can save the taxpayers’ money and bring outside investment to meet a community’s needs….

Passenger rail supporters recognize and support the usefulness of public-private partnerships. But history shows us that some sort of subsidy will continue to be needed to maintain and grow the passenger rail network.

Amtrak is an extremely expensive railroad for the American taxpayers, who must subsidize every ticket.

All forms of transportation are subsidized. Taxpayers pay much more for highways than what comes from the Highway Trust Fund. We pay for the air-traffic control system, and we subsidize some very expensive flights through the Essential Air Service program. Why should roads and air service be given preferential treatment over passenger rail?

Amtrak was created in 1970 because the private railroads were no longer willing or able to provide passenger service, and President Nixon recognized that without rail, highways (especially in the Northeast) would be unable to take the additional traffic.

Passenger rail advocates recognize the limitations of Amtrak. But given its chronic underfunding, it’s little short of amazing that it’s done as well as it has for 45+ years. And the level of subsidy it receives has been shrinking steadily.

The federal government should allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor. The same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country.

Provisions for such ventures are already in place, as part of the PRIIA Act. But it should be noted that no private entity will want to operate the Northeast Corridor before a century’s worth of deferred maintenance (like the Hudson River tunnels, the Baltimore tunnels, and many more) have been completed, and even then, some sort of operating subsidy will be needed.

We reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.

This is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the California high-speed rail project. Many of us believe that “higher-speed rail,” that is, improvements to existing rail services, would be useful. But it is far from clear that the California project is a boondoggle. The small chunks of Missouri and Kansas interstate that opened in 1956 probably looked like highways to nowhere at the time.

So again, it is unpleasantly clear that the Republican platform is not supportive of passenger rail. Please check with your local candidates, and vote for folks that are more willing to support rail than the national platform is.

-CH

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