Bridging the Fiscal Cliff

Buffalo Light Rail

» Declining federal expenditures will hit transportation spending hard. How should states and cities keep up their investments?

The Democratic Party’s big wins in last month’s national elections effectively maintained the national status quo, keeping Barack Obama in the White House, Democrats in charge of the U.S. Senate, and Republicans at the helm of the U.S. House. The Democrats have the cities to thank for their success; urban voters not only turned out to vote at high levels, but they made clear their overwhelming preference for the Democratic Party’s government investment program. In matters of transportation, Democrats in power represent a base of voters that benefits uniquely from new spending on transit, pedestrian, and biking infrastructure.

As part of his proposal to respond to the nation’s “fiscal cliff” — a government austerity mechanism imposed by the Congress a year ago — President Obama suggests investing $50 billion immediately in new infrastructure spending in order to provide additional stimulus for the still-weak economy. The Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, has also noted that the President plans to include significant funding for high-speed rail in next year’s proposed budget.

But Republicans have made clear that they are singularly opposed to any such additional spending, and according to Slate’s Dave Weigel, are actively plotting ways to further marginalize urban voters, rather than, you know, develop policies that attempt to respond to their needs. Thus the chances that the House GOP will approve any additional federal spending on transportation over and beyond what was already approved in the MAP-21 two-year transportation reauthorization bill are minimal. Nor are we likely to see new federal transportation revenue generators such as a gas tax increase or the implementation of a vehicle miles travelled fee.

At the same time, for the most part states have not taken up the slack. Few have taken the initiative to increase their funding for transportation projects and those that have have frequently oriented those investments towards new roads rather than sustainable alternative infrastructure.

What does this mean for cities? Are we likely to see another two years of federal inaction when it comes to improving our transportation system, thereby decreasing the level of maintenance of many of the nation’s transit systems and making expansions downright difficult? Or could we see a breakthrough? Please use the comments section as an open thread to add your thoughts on this and any other relevant transportation issues.

My apologies for the lack of writing as of late; my non-web work has taken hold of my time. I hope to be writing more soon, but in the meantime will post shorter entries such as this to allow for commenters to chip in and keep up the discussion.

Image above: Buffalo Light Rail, from Flickr user Jenn Durfey (CC)

46 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • It will be difficult, damned difficult, to get anything of substance done. If the GOP are giving up on the urban vote entirely, I’d expect to see even less desire to help transit systems run more efficiently or to keep them in a state of good repair. They are, in the eyes of a healthy chunk of car-dependent GOP voters, government largesse to support unions and poor slackers in the city. Those who don’t share that view won’t care enough to protest.

    Why would the GOP push forward on infrastructure spending, and especially transit spending? Instead, I suspect most of the improvements will be at the margins: bike lanes, sidewalks, etc.

    • Nathanael

      The problem is the gerrymandering. More people, nationwide, voted for Democrats in the House than voted for Republicans in the House. The Republicans have more seats in the House, which they shouldn’t.

      Oh, at the state level the Republicans are just resorting to bribing legislators to switch parties in order to retain power. This happened in New York and Washington states.

      The Republican Party is no longer a legitimate political party. It is an anti-democracy organization devoted to establishing an elitist, monarchy-style political system. They must be stopped.

  • Woody

    Repubs like to say that they’re for smaller government and for the states taking more responsibility. So I’d meet them part way on that. Let the states put tolls on the Interstates and use the revenue for any transportation projects they want.

    Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Democrat, wanted to toll I-80 across the northern tier of the state. (The Pennsylvania Turnpike, or I-76, across the southern tier has been tolled since it began in 1940.) Much of the substantial toll revenues was going to improve the rails in the heavily populated southeastern part of the state. But federal rules prevented adding the tolls to I-80.

    Now let’s change those rules. Of course, the Repubs are in charge of Pennsylvania nowadays. But by the time the rules changes could get thru Congress, it could be almost time for rail-friendly politicians to make a comeback there.

    The upgrades around Philly that Rendell’s toll plan was going to pay for would have improved commuter rail for the city and its suburbs.

    The improvements would have taken about 10 minutes out of the schedule of the more-or-less hourly Keystone trains to Harrisburg.

    The upgrades would have sped up the Pennsylvanian daily train to Pittsburgh. More passengers to Harrisburg and Pittsburgh would make it even more attractive to add one or more frequencies to that route. Like extending one or more trains beyond Pittsburgh to provide daylight service to Cleveland. Perhaps restoring a connection to Detroit, as well as restoring the route of the Broadway Limited to Chicago.

    All of those Philly region improvements are still worth doing. So change those rules and use the toll money to get the job done.

    • Beta Magellan

      The problem is that, even with those improvements, the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh trip would have still been uncompetitively slow, and extensions to Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago will be even worse—even if such projects double ridership, next-to-zero 0% of intercity mode share times two still equals next-to-zero.

      Intercity rail isn’t worth funding if your projects’ main constituency is nostalgic railfans.

      • Nathanael

        Pittsburgh-Harrisburg does need some new routing. It’s quite possible to construct a much faster route via State College, and the Philadelphia-Harrisburg-State College ridership would be enormous.

        Even with the current speeds, the Pennsylvanian is quite popular.

        The Philly improvements need to be done anyway though, just for the Keystone.

        • Adirondacker12800

          No it wouldn’t except during college breaks.

          • Eric

            And weekends. And every day, for anyone who has to commute to PSU (hint: universities have very high densities of workers, not just students).

            • Adirondacker12800

              Real estate is cheap in State College, why would anyone commute from Harrisburg? The high speed train isn’t going to be stopping every mile and a half to pick up commuters, Either of them.

          • Nathanael

            Have you ever looked at rail ridership from college towns? Clearly not.

            It’s high. Period. They “punch above their weight” — consistently show higher ridership than cities of the same size which aren’t college towns.

            And State College is a pretty big town to start with; bigger than the nothingvilles on the current route!

            Yeah, the route should go from Harrisburg to State College and then down to Altoona. Then there’s some really hard work to improve speeds from Altoona to Johnstown and from Johnstown to Pittsburgh.

            • Adirondacker12800

              … there is a reason why the DL&W abandoned passenger service to Ithaca in the 40s….

              • Nathanael

                The DL&W route took longer to get from South Hill to downtown than it took to walk.

                And Cornell is on East Hill.

                And the Lehigh Valley system had direct service to Ithaca from four different directions on faster routes.

                Now you know the reason why the DL&W abandoned passenger service to Ithaca in the ’40s.

                The Lehigh Valley passenger service only died when *everyone’s* rail service died.

        • Pennsylvania DOT, Ohio DOT, Michigan DOT and Amtrak have been dancing around a solution for decades. The solution is Phase 1 Emerging HSR featuring 110 mph, 80 mph avg. speed, two-track plus sidings, 16 daily trains for Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Akron-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit corridor.

          Amtrak Keystone at 110 mph and 12 daily trains is approaching profitability. There is reason to be confident that as gasoline prices increase by 2020, this Amtrak route upgrade would approach/achieve operating profit as well. For roughly $12B, this Phase 1 solution would accomplish several benefits:

          1. Upgrades current Amtrak routes and reestablishes Toledo-Detroit service.

          2. Reduces traffic congestion and accidents on I-76 Turnpike.

          3. Builds more overpasses, closes more road crossings and reallocates freight trains to safer, more dependable nightly service

          4. Permits Amtrak to dropkick the dreadfully slow, low-patronage Washington-Pittsburgh route (This slow train made me prefer riding Greyhound in my college days).

          5. Reconnects/shorten journey times that attract business and leisure travelers:
          Cleveland-Pittsburgh (132 miles) 1Hr 35Min
          Detroit-Cleveland (169 miles) 2Hr 5Min
          Detroit-Pittsburgh (285 miles) 3Hr 30Min
          Pittsburgh-Philadelphia (304 miles) 3Hr 50Min

          6. Rebuild an intercity passenger train culture in the corridor that will welcome 185-200 mph Phase 2 service.

          • The Pennsylvanian is already double-tracked. I forget whether the NS route is double-tracked to Pittsburgh or to Cleveland, but in either case it has fairly heavy freight traffic, to the point that the Horseshoe Curve is triple-tracked because it’s slower.

            Because of the heavy freight traffic, and the curviness of the existing route east of Cleveland, there’s not much point in investing in the legacy route except for electrification. If the only way you can improve the route is by restoring quadruple-tracking, it’s better to build the two extra tracks along a high-speed greenfield route.

            • Woody

              Amtrak agrees with Alon.

              An October 2009 report studied Pennsylvanian service carefully. (Especially careful to avoid looking at possible trains onward to Cleveland, Detroit, etc.)

              The report is still on Amtrak’s site, look under About Amtrak, Reports & Documents. It recommended an additional daylight train to Pittsburgh and another going only to Altoona, with bus connections to State College. Apparently they didn’t look hard at an overnight train here, probably due to Amtrak’s desperate lack of equipment.

              It concluded that the new trains would attract 180,000 new pax a year, with the added Pittsburgh train falling mid-range for farebox recovery. So if someone finds the money and the rolling stock, a couple more trains here makes some sense.

              But, Amtrak said, “It is important to note that the relatively circuitous route between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh climbs and turns through mountains and tunnels to navigate the steep terrain. The distance between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh is longer by rail (248.5 miles) than by highway (200 miles), which means that between those cities, the greater energy efficiency of intercity rail is offset, at least in part, by the longer distance trains must travel to connect them. Thus, the current alignment is less conducive to contributions to reductions in energy consumption and emissions than would be a rail alignment that is a straight line between both cities.” Elsewhere it notes that the train now takes two hours longer than driving Harrisburg-Pittsburgh.

              I’d like to see many trains added here. But we should be thinking about three or four base tunnels on a greenfield straight line route, even if it starts out at 110 mph to speed. That won’t be cheap in any case.

              • If the line is going to have a lot of tunneling anyways, given US construction costs, the line might as well be built to a 125mph standard, because the signalling and ROW straightening from 110 to 125mph can’t be that much more expensive, and it’s almost impossible to improve speeds on tunnels already in service.

                This is all assuming that Amtrak would get enough funding to start expanding its network, of course.

              • Woody

                Henry, yes, might as well build to 125-mph standards. And at least build the shell of the right of way (tunnels, bridges, etc) to allow ready upgrading to 220 mph once we start to do a lot of that. Or if.

                We were getting used to talking about the new 110-mph lines, like St Louis-Chicago and the Wolverine route.

                Then Amtrak decided to go for Next Generation diesels capable of 125 mph, for the long distance trains on the NEC, and everywhere else too. So any “higher speed” routes from here on will probably be designed for use by locomotives capable of doing 125 mph even before electrification.

              • Adirondacker12800

                Can’t bring diesels into Penn Station or Grand Central. If you have to change engines at Washington DC or Harrisburg it doesn’t matter much if they can keep up with the traffic on the NEC.

              • Sounds like Phase 1 Harrisburg-Pittsburgh should be adding more trains and better crossing guards — an ~8 daily frequency + safety upgrade from Philadelphia-Harrisburg-Pittsburgh.

                Phase 2 for 125 mph + electrification makes no sense from benefit-to-cost perspective. It doesn’t generate enough sub-3-hour trip times for people to modes hitch

                If greenfield route straightening and 4 more tunnels are required, then the objective should be run NextGen trainsets at 160mph, 120 mph avg and 28 daily trains in the Harrisburg-Pittsburgh-Akron segment and up to 185 mph from Harrisburg-Philly-NYC and Akron-Cleveland.

                In that manner, Philadelphia-Cleveland and NYC-Pittsburgh become 3 hour options for travelers to mode-switch from flights and long drives. I would also make Cleveland a through-running HSR hub connecting the Northeast to the Midwest.

            • Nathanael

              Alon, I agree. I picked my preferred route based on population patterns.

              Harrisburg – State College – Altoona – Johnstown – Pittsburgh hits all the metro areas near the route. Run as fast as you can between each pair of cities, but get to all those cities.

              I think Phase I should be new, fast, electrified Harrisburg-State College-Altoona tracks. State College-Altoona is straightfoward; Harrisburg-State College is mountainous.

              This would have an immediate benefit in terms of serving State College, as well as increasing speed. Change engines at Altoona for the Pittsburgh-Philly trains. Add more trains from Altoona eastward.

              Phase II should be to punch through the mountains west of Altoona on a greenfield route to Johnstown, which is going to be expensive but bypasses the chokepoint of Horseshoe Curve. At this point, you can introduce more trains from Pittsburgh to Philly (see below).

              Phase III should be to straighten out the passenger route from there to Pittsburgh. There’s significant track and ROW redundancy west of Johnstown, making this less urgent. None of it is straight and the section in Pittsburgh is a particular problem.

            • Alon,

              Assuming some portion of the “portion” of Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure (2 year) stimulus is included in the final budget deal, the only HSR work I see justification for on the Pennsylvanian route for the next two years is more overpass and signaling upgrades to Harrisburg-Philadelphia route with the objective of increasing to 125+ mph with existing Keystone train sets and to 185 mph with NextGen trainsets in the future.

              Upgrading Harrisburg-State College-Altoona to electrified 125 mph status with overpasses and curve straightening will not be cheap. So I’d leave that to the next 6-Year Surface Transportation Bill. I would add however, that Hi-Speed greenfield constriction in Altoona-Pittsburgh-Akron-Clevleand should begin as well, it would have a longer completion date.

              All routing, tunneling, track and signal upgrades should staged to create this 160-185 mph Express HSR line in 2026-28:

              Philly-Harrisburg-State College-Pittsburgh-Akron-Cleveland.

              • To clarify, in any constrained funding situation, I agree that Keystone should take a back seat to more important concerns. The current Obama proposal gives only $4 billion to HSR and $2 billion to Amtrak; the optimal way to spend the HSR money is to send it all to California with a stipulation that it needs to spend it on LA-Bakersfield, ideally with shifting past federal money to that segment and away from lower-priority segments north of Fresno.

                What I’m saying is that if the biggest funding crunches are resolved – which they won’t until the Democrats control the White House and both houses of Congress – the Keystone/Pennsylvanian route should be a major candidate for full-fat HSR, starting from Harrisburg and going as far west as possible given other funding needs.

                My very primitive ridership screen, which probably underestimates short-distance ridership and overestimates long-distance ridership, tells me that after the NEC, the highest-value HSR in the US is in the Southeast, starting from DC and heading toward Atlanta. The explanation is that segments like DC-Raleigh give you the full benefits of New York-Raleigh ridership while only incurring the costs of building DC-Raleigh. This cascades down to successive segments until you hit Atlanta. This effect is much smaller in Pennsylvania unless Philly-Harrisburg can be upgraded to full HSR very cheaply, because the preexisting NY-Philly segment is much shorter than NY-DC. On top of that, construction in the South is almost certainly cheaper than across the northern Appalachians.

              • I didn’t realize the potential stimulus funding would be only $4B HSR and $2B Amtrak in the new budget deal. Since HSR and Amtrak were zeroed out for two years and Obama ‘s last 6-Year proposal asked for 47B/6 years, I hoped that his latest proposal would total roughly $11B/2 years for HSR & Amtrak.

                But under the $6B funding scenario, I completely agree to send it all to California HSR and condition CAHSRA to contribute another 1.5B from the HSR bond for
                Fresno-Bakersfeild-Palmdale-Sylmar corridor. That would make the Initial Operating Segment a winner by 2021-22.

                I don’t know if its possible, but I’d also like to see Federal Transit send $1.5B (60% of project cost, http://www.sfcta.org/content/view/272/91) to tunnel from Caltrain 4th & King Station to the Transbay Transit Center by 2019. Caltrain will be electrified in 2014-15, adding trains, more overpasses and road crossing closures by 2019. With speedier peninsula commuter trains finally arriving into the heart of SF Financial District by 2019, Caltrain ridership should easily boost from 50K daily today to 70K daily then, http://archives.smdailyjournal.com/article_preview.php?id=1755703. That’s more ridership boost than most commuter rail transit projects in the country, while paving the way for HSR in Transbay Transit Center.

                With those two projects completing in 2019-22, CAHSR’s completion would be a near certainty that attracts private investment for public value capture around each HSR transit center in the 2020s.

              • Jim

                $4B is wildly, wildly inadequate as a one-off for HSR. If it were one annual installment in a series of annual appropriations, it would be only mildly inadequate. It seems clear that the White House and probably the Treasury have no real idea of the scale of investment required.

                $4B, even maximally matched from Prop 1A funds, can’t get Fresno-Palmdale built, even if the funds intended for north of Fresno were to be redirected.

          • david vartanoff

            while not speedy, the current Wash-Pitt route is the best we have available. (The once competing PRR routes vis Balto/Harrisburg were even slower) Secondly, if we were serious, the ex B&O mainline from DC as far as Cumberland could be seriously speeded up by smoothing curves/straightening the ROW. Water the money tree. From Cumberland to Pittsburgh, there just isn’t anything out there other than start from scratch engineering. Meanwhile as this is my favorite stretch of track anywhere, I will continue to use the route.

            • Nathanael

              The trouble is that there just isn’t enough demand for the DC-Pittsburgh to make it worth speeding up much; it isn’t that beneficial as a link. So much of the population is in the NORTHeast that the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia route has to be a higher priority. If that’s done, Harrisburg-York-Baltimore becomes attractive as it has lots of intermediate population and easy topograhy — which pushes DC-Pittsburgh further onto the back burner. Meanwhile, the service from the Midwest to the Southeast, it’s better to go even further south — the Cardinal route hits a lot of major cities and if they weren’t all “highway-obsessed” states we might see proposals for HSR along that string of cities.

      • Woody

        The single largest constituency for the long distance service appears to be people who’d otherwise be “shut ins”, as we used to say in the South. About a third of the riders of the long distance trains are over age 65.

        Let me tell you about being over 65. Diabetic neuropathy makes my legs ache. Not sure why my hip joints hurt, probably just the arthritis. My eyes sometimes have floaters, and all the time have cataracts, just not yet bad enuff for Medicare to pay for corrective surgery. And I seem to be gradually losing motor control, judging by my deteriorating handwriting.

        The point will soon come when you might want to PAY Amtrak to take me off the roads, for your safety and mine. Oh, hey, you’re doing that already: Amtrak costs you and 310 million other Americans about $5 per year. You’re getting your five buck’s worth from other non-drivers already, I’m sure.

        Consider other ADA users. My older sister shattered her ankle, got 12 screws, two plates, a huge cast, and instructions not to fly because the bubbles in the cast expand at high altitudes and would squeeze the leg. Riding two long distance trains from Mayo Clinic got her home.

        Add in the folks suffering claustrophobia, those too obese to fit into airline seats without their avoirdupois overflowing onto their seat mates, or who have their own sweet reasons to take the train. Well, pretty soon you’re up to that 1% of the population that does rides Amtrak — rover 31 million a year — and wants more of it.

        Sure, many nostalgic railfans ride the long distance trains, as you sneer. But from what I’ve read of their comments, they’re usually in the sleepers, which are fully priced and apparently operate at break-even or better. In much the same way that the fares in the First Class cabin make the other air fares affordable, the charges for the sleepers may help cover the costs of the coaches.

        There are also very large numbers of ordinary people going about their lives using the basic Amtrak to get from where they are to where they want to be. Business reasons, family visits, medical appointments, students off to college or heading home, etc.

        An analysis of a train like the Empire Builder shows that less than 10% of the passengers are riding end to end, from Chicago to Portland or Seattle, and, yeah, most of those are taking the view. Most of the OTHER 90% are going from St Paul to St Cloud, or Fargo to Minot, in a thousand overlapping city pairs, and almost none of them really workable by air or bus.

        But please don’t tell the people riding trains that they should drive instead, because not everyone can. We aren’t all forever young.

        Full disclosure: I haven’t been on a long distance train since 2001. But I expect to need to do so more frequently as my life winds down. That’s unless, when I need to get out of town, you want to give me rides in your nice car (or a rented one, I don’t own a car myself)? Well, I’d prefer to take the train. What would you prefer, that I take the long distance train, or stay shut in my home and rot? Or am I overlooking another option?

        • Eric

          “Add in the folks suffering claustrophobia, those too obese to fit into airline seats without their avoirdupois overflowing onto their seat mates, or who have their own sweet reasons to take the train. ”

          Claustrophobia – take Greyhound
          Obese – buy two seats on the plane
          Their own sweet reasons – why should I have to pay for this?

          “Consider other ADA users.”

          So basically Amtrak is becoming an expensive shuttle service for disabled people. Why should this have to come out of the limited transportation budget, preventing the other 95% of the country from getting reasonable transit improvements? It is a medical service and should be labeled as such, and come out of Medicare funding.

          “In much the same way that the fares in the First Class cabin make the other air fares affordable, the charges for the sleepers may help cover the costs of the coaches.”

          Um, no. The money lost on long-distance Amtrak routes is a matter of public record. Sure, without sleeper cabins the losses might be even higher, but that doesn’t mean we have to run routes with a slightly lower level of losses.

          “What would you prefer, that I take the long distance train, or stay shut in my home and rot? Or am I overlooking another option?”

          Yes, Greyhound.

          • Woody

            Eric, If you think the lousy $1.5 billion going to Amtrak is what’s stopping transit improvements elsewhere, you may need a remedial education on the U.S. budget.

            Here’s a start. The fiscal 2013 budget that Obama proposed included total outlays of $3.8 trillion. (All figures from Wikipedia.)

            But let’s use the zeros first.

            $3,803,000,000,000 in total expenditures.

            $672,900,000,000 for Dept of Defense and related war stuff.
            $940,900,000,000 for Dept of Health including Medicare and Medicaid.
            $246,000,000,000 Net interest.
            $98,500,000,000 Dept of Transportation.
            $1,500,000,000 Amtrak.

            But maybe the many zeroes are confusing.
            $3 thousand 800 billion in total outlays.
            $672.9 billion in Defense and wars stuff
            $940.9 billion in Health.
            $246.0 billion in Net interest.
            $98.5 billion in Transportation.
            $1.5 billion Amtrak .

            Look at it still another way. Put 7,600 pennies on your dining room table. Three (3) of them are for Amtrak. Big F Deal.

            Yeah, Amtrak is a HUGE problem if you have been swallowing the propaganda from the “government is the problem, not the solution” and “drown the government in the bathtub” ideologues, Ayn Rand cultists, and government haters. Otherwise you could just use the Amtrak subsidy to round up the Defense budget from $672.9 billion to $673 billion.

            If anyone is really concerned about cutting wasteful expenditures, the classic advice applies: “Follow the money”. The big money is not in Amtrak’s three pennies put of seven thousand six hundred pennies. It’s somewhere else.

            Of course, there is another valuable service that Amtrak has been providing the haters for a mere $1.5 billion. The ideologues need a failing Amtrak very badly. It’s always Exhibit 1 in their evidence that the government can’t do anything, so it all should be turned over to the rich.

            No, the Repub crazies in Congress do not really want to eliminate Amtrak. They just want to keep it starved of investment, always lacking enuff locomotives and rolling stock to add to revenue the way a normal business grows its way to success.

            Meanwhile, about 2004 Amtrak began a row of record growth years. The number of Amtrak passengers has almost doubled, while the inflation-adjusted subsidy has remained flat. When the stimulus funded projects start to kick in next year and after, the passenger totals and revenue will continue to rise.

            With Amtrak on an 8-year run of increasing success, why get so excited about ending it now?

            • Beta Magellan

              Waste elsewhere doesn’t justify waste on transportation. Most of us who comment here don’t think Amtrak has huge problems because we’ve swallowed right-wing propaganda—we think it has huge problems because we have a base level of familiarity with how other countries invest in intercity rail (hint: they’re generally much better at it).

              • Woody

                Thank goodness someone here has “a base level of familiarity with how other countries invest in intercity rail” — and is eager to let us know they have it and I don’t.

                But let me share some of the little I may know about other countries’ rail history.
                1) Every European country had a fairly extensive network of regular (heavily used but slow, money-losing, historically subsidized Amtrak-like) rail routes long before their politicians were persuaded to invest heavily in the substantial upgrades we call HSR.
                2) Most of the important lines in Europe were already electrified, allowing the HSR trains to easily take existing routes into the big city stations avoiding more costly work, and letting them extend their fast trains beyond the HSR lines to other cities.
                3) Almost every European city has a much better, more complete public transit system feeding the main rail stations than almost any American city has.
                4) Generally, European cities have denser, more populated cores, while our urban areas sprawl.
                5) Except for Canada, none of the other developed countries rely on using privately owned railroads to carry the trains of the national system.

                Aside from things like that, I guess, the U.S. and the foreigners are all just alike. So we don’t have to work within an American framework, or build upon our existing system of passenger rail with incremental upgrades. We can just urge our political leaders to follow the French example.

                Oh, wait.

              • All of those countries that invested heavily in rail made sure the regulations allowed for effective use of it first. Germany, for example, made a serious reform in 1994, which enabled the revival since.

                And all of those countries started by investing in the heavily ridden routes, rather than the Empire Builders. If you’re talking about electrifying parts of the Northern Transcon so that select Chicago-Minneapolis HSR trains can continue onward to Fargo, then sure. Or if you’re talking about reasonable service from MSP to Fargo, even. Beyond that, forget about it – the Northern Transcon isn’t and has never been a fast freight corridor, which means that you can’t expect good passenger rail service on it. And bad service gives good service elsewhere a bad name. If trains run on time on the core part of the network but are still routinely 5 hours late on the heritage part, the entire brand will suffer.

              • Nathanael

                Beta: hint: most other developed countries spend far, far more on rail, the government owns all the tracks, and the expressways are tolled.

                Before you complain about Amtrak, complain about the government policy which encourages railroad tracks to be privately owned. This is a “does not happen” situation in most countries. Then complain about the free-to-use multibillion-dollar expressways.

                There’s minor “administrative-side” problems with Amtrak, including the FRA “built like a tank” regulations (not Amtrak’s fault), unreliable customer service, and a very rich wage structure. But those are *miniscule* compared to the transportation problems listed above.

                I am suspicious of people who look for “waste” at Amtrak when the Department of Defense (now upwards of 600 BILLION per year!) has never passed an audit. They’ve been required for decades.

                The DoD is arguably incorrigable; it should probably be shut down and dissolved. We used to do this, you know! No standing armies, new armies for each war! It actually makes for a more competent and responsible military if we do that. Instead, now the military-industrial complex is a giant, incompetent bureaucracy which exists to funnel money to military contractors, and occasionally blow money up, without *ever* actually winning wars.

                If you think Amtrak has huge problems, you are looking in the wrong place.

              • Nathanael, you say the administrative and regulatory problems are minuscule, but on the line hit hardest by them and the least hard by the other issues, the NEC, the trains have about twice the per-passenger-km operating costs of international HSR and have something like one sixth the ridership they should have.

                And in Canada, the one line they built according to German best industry practices as far as I can broke world records for cost-effectiveness per rider.

              • Nathanael

                Alon: what line are you talking about in Canada? Obviously not one of the privately owned lines. Q.E.D.

              • The O-Train in Ottawa. It’s also occasionally used by a CN-owned shortline after hours for freight.

          • Steven H

            Considering that I’m not willing to ride Greyhound now while I’m 30, I don’t think I’d really recommend it to someone who’s over 55. I’ve taken 12+ hour, standing-room-only trains in China, but four hours on Megabus is still hell on wheels (Amtrak is on my hate list for dumping me on a bus for the last 500 miles of my trip from New Orleans to LA earlier this year).

            That said, we don’t really fund long-distance trains to ferry the disabled and pissy 30-year-olds around; nor do we fund Amtrak to show off, to whatever’s left of the Greatest Generation, the country that they were willing to sacrifice everything for (or, to the aging Boomers, the country that they weren’t willing to sacrifice anything for); we fund it because we can’t cut service in the red states without those jokers threatening to cut off service to the rest of us. Maybe we can negotiate a stand-down: we cut off Amtrak in Kansas, and they stop sending us their mutant corn… we may all be better off, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

            Anyway, long-distance Amtrak trains are hardly the most expensive service we fund for political or sentimental reasons; we fund Congress, and it’s not like it’s managed to do anything recently.

            • Nathanael

              Congress has managed to damage the country pretty badly in recent years. Not as bad as the DoD or the Presidency from 2000-2008, of course. But yeah, we apparently fund these things for sentimental reasons.

    • I don’t know if this would fall under the purview of the state or the federal governments, but counties and cities should also be able to charge tolling surcharges on their sections of highway. If a city decided to implemented, it’d be similar to the tolled Japanese urban expressway networks.

      Proceeds would be split between capital projects and transit funding. If it was implemented in, say, New York, it would probably decrease congestion and raise more money for the MTA than the original congestion pricing scheme.

  • tbert

    There is a way for transit-oriented states to circumvent some of this, it seems; there’s a certain amount of leeway in transportation funding, where funds “flexed” from roads to transit could be replaced, in whole or part, by gasoline taxes (which are a political non-starter nationally, but may be doable in states with larger urban populations).

  • Truly Smart Growth

    Two big pro-urbanist, small government things that can be done at the national level: (1) stop funding the streetcar madness. People are riding regular buses in increasing numbers, and we need to spend the (increasingly) limited transport dollars on better, more frequent bus services, not light-rail that’s no faster than a bus. Streetcars today are about local politicians’ egos and spendthrift yuppy “urbanists” who want their cute toys. (2) Stephen Smith has been asking why transport projects are so much more expensive in US vs. other countries. We need congressional research/hearings into the question.

    • Woody

      Truly confused? Street cars run on rails in the streets with the traffic, while light rail cars run on tracks in their own separate right of way.

      Street cars are much slower than light rail, and naturally get fewer riders, and light rail always gets more riders than buses.

      Light rail is more expensive and problematic, because of the need to find exclusive ROW, or, as in Denver, to carve it out of the streets.

      Street car and light rail lines are more expensive up front, but buses cost more to operate year after year. Steel wheel on steel rail always will be more energy efficient than rubber tire on pavement, and the rail cars require less maintenance, and don’t wear out as quickly as buses.

      Buses have a profound class or image problem — city kids call buses “loser cruisers”. That perception probably will not go away as long as every kid in elementary school knows exactly who arrives in a big ugly yellow bus and who gets dropped off by their mommie or another chauffeur.

      Both light rail and street car lines have been shown to encourage transit-oriented development along their routes, much more so than buses. The new development may generate enuff new taxes to justify the cost of building rail; but alas, those increased taxes are rarely captured and used directly to pay off the original construction.

      Street cars seem to work well in fairly short routes in or near downtown. Light rail can do that, too, but can also work well as a commuter line in built-up areas.

      Now, let’s try to put the problem in scale.

      Ignore cutesy-pie “heritage trolley lines”. Focus where any serious money (tho less than a billion in every case, I believe) is being spent on modern lines:

      D.C., a couple of lines coming off the drawing board, er, off the computer screen
      Charlotte, one modest line funded, iirc
      Atlanta, one line under construction
      New Orleans, one recently opened cutesy-modern and another close to construction
      Cincinnati, one line underway
      Salt Lake City, a downtown line soonish
      Tucson, one line under construction
      Portland, recently extended its popular street car system
      Seattle, one line underway

      Oops, running out of fingers, what if I missed one? Should I take off my socks?

      Seriously, 8 or 10 streetcar lines hardly seem the threat to the nation that you claim. If you think this be madness, have you priced a freeway interchange lately (a billion dollars should do it in Milwaukee)?

      Now actually, I’m not a big enthusiast for street cars. However, I am one of those “spendthrift” urbanists who counts costs over a 10-20 year lifespan, instead of looking at construction costs only. And I’ve been persuaded that light rail is less expensive over that timeframe than buses.

      But I know rail lines don’t make sense except in heavily used corridors. So I agree with you that we need more buses, lots more buses, to reach deep into neighborhoods in every city and small town. I just don’t see a pitiful number of street cars or light rail lines as getting much in the way of those buses.

    • Nathanael

      First of all the “Examiner” newspapers are right-wing propaganda rags controlled by oilman Phil Anschutz and just lie outright when they aren’t making selective claims (for instance, record ridership on 10 urban rail systems, lower than expected on one, what do they report? Well, the OIL companies want to stop electrified rail, so they report low ridership.)

      Second, the Post article is just about finicky little policy details, so what’s your point?

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