Elections High-Speed Rail Kentucky Louisville

Rail Becomes an Election Issue in Kentucky; Could it Become Important in Other Statewide Campaigns?

Mongiardo Rail Plan» Running for U.S. Senate, Lieutenant Governor Daniel Mongiardo makes a push for better rail-based transportation.

Though choices about investing in transportation frequently plays a role in mayoral and gubernatorial races, rarely do candidates lay out specific plans for new systems that have not before been suggested by state officials or transit proponents. Yet that’s exactly what Daniel Mongiardo is attempting in his effort to win one of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seats in 2010.

A physician, Mr. Mongiardo ran for the same seat in 2004 as a Democrat, losing to Republican Jim Bunning, who is not running for reelection. In the meantime, Mr. Mongiardo became the state’s Lieutenant Governor once Steve Beshear became Governor in 2007. Though Mr. Mongiardo is the front-runner in the Democratic primary, he is behind in the general-election polls, unsurprising in this GOP-heavy state.

Despite Kentucky’s lackluster public transportation offerings and virtually no Amtrak service, Mr. Mongiardo last week presented a plan to dramatically increase intercity rail service in the state and expand transit in the Louisville area exponentially. Expanding on the federal government’s general plan for high-speed rail, the candidate envisions Kentucky as the center of the nationwide network, connecting the Midwest to the Southeast. Two major lines would be built: one from Cincinnati south through Lexington towards Atlanta and another from Louisville south through Bowling Green towards Birmingham. Slower lines would head across the state and connect to smaller destinations. These links make sense as part of a national rail plan and would be able to attract a number of passengers if neighboring states such as Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio, were to get on board with their connected corridors.

In the Louisville area, Mr. Mongiardo’s project would mean the construction of dozens of miles of new diesel light rail corridors similar to the New Jersey River Line; these would use existing freight rail infrastructure and encourage commuting by transit to downtown.

A bit more wild are the Lieutenant Governor’s plans for “Rapid Access Monorails” and “Activity Center Loops” in the urban areas that would connect with the other rail lines. Despite the candidate’s seeming enthusiasm for this idea, they are nothing more than gadgetbahn personal rapid transit he appears to have been fed by Cincinnati-based company Novitran, at least according to his own maps. Like all imaginary transit proposals, this would of course be profitable. There is no reason to expect that this project has any chance of being built; there’s little reason to waste time on the concept.

The candidate’s proposals reflect that he is a novice in matters of transportation, but there’s a larger point here.

What’s most interesting about Mr. Mongiardo’s proposed transit links is that a senator in the U.S. Congress has very little direct influence on the decision-making of local authorities when it comes to transit, nor on the choices made by the state government on intercity rail. Nevertheless, he seems to have concluded that a specific vision of where new transit might go is more palpable to voters than a simple promise of more federal money. Unfortunately, the latter is the one thing a senator actually can produce.

In fact, Mr. Mongiardo makes the very good point that his state contributes around four times as much to the mass transit trust fund as it gets back — the federal government should fund more non-automobile transportation there.

Whether Kentuckyians will pick up on the message is a different question — especially if they begin to question whether the candidate’s promises have any value. During his time as Lieutenant Governor, the state’s Transportation Cabinet — its Department of Transportation — has failed to work seriously for any new rail project in the state. Perhaps worse, the roads projects it has endorsed, including the massive and unnecessary new I-64 bridge and interchange through downtown Louisville, have often been unnecessary and detrimental to the well-being of the state’s cities.

Yet the relative specificity of the plans suggests a new interest in public transportation in areas that once seemed antithetical to the idea, like Kentucky. If Mr. Mongiardo considers it worth his time to promote a transit scheme to a primarily road-using constituency, America is rapidly evolving. When will candidates in other statewide races begin proposing new transit projects of their own?

Image above: Mongiardo’s proposed rail system, from his campaign website.