Rail Travel In America: Starring Joe Biden As Dagny Taggart

I'm the editor of Progressive Congress News Transit & Urban Development feed. This is the first in a weekly series of topical posts on cities and the roads & rails that connect them. Trains are a highly-developed, widely-used, and very popular

I'm the editor of Progressive Congress News Transit & Urban Development feed. This is the first in a weekly series of topical posts on cities and the roads & rails that connect them.

Trains are a highly-developed, widely-used, and very popular form of transportation -- a strange choice of culture war for the right. Yet hatred of trains, especially ones that run on time, is a pronounced theme of Mrs. Rand's Bible of selfish economic wisdom. After decades of gestation in Hollywood development hell, Atlas Shrugged Part I will soon star star Vice President Joe Biden as Dagny Taggart, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as Hank Rearden, and Florida Governor Rick Scott as Wesley Mouch.

There are some problems with high speed rail (HSR); the big one is that these trains are fast and run on time. That makes HSR competitive with air travel. A train going 110 or even 150 miles per hour makes intercity trips faster than a bus or car, but without having to go through TSA screening. (In fact, if you hate the TSA you should be taking a train as often as possible.)

In order to reach these speeds, HSR uses independent tracks. This is a major argument of detractors, for whom the independent rails that let trains run fast and on time are the problem. The word they always use is "Amtrak," which is Exhibit A for why independent rails are needed:

Where intercity passenger trains compete with freight – in most of the country these days, excluding the (Northeast Corridor) – “Amtrak can only run a handful of trains per day because they’re leasing space on a freight railroad that doesn’t keep the schedules,” said Petra Todorovich, an expert on high-speed rail with the nonprofit America 2050. “When [freight trains] fill up their cargo from the yard, then they leave the yard. So Amtrak is trying to run passenger trains on a schedule on tracks that are owned by a railroad that doesn’t keep a schedule.”

That’s why rail service in much of the country has been infrequent and unreliable and has been in a poor position to compete with private automobiles or air travel. Amtrak continues to run those lines as a public service, in many cases mandated by Congress – but they’re not profitable or efficient. (Emphasis mine)

God forbid trains be profitable or efficient, because people will enjoy the legroom on trains...and the lack of bag fees...and the absence of seat belts. Yet, brace yourself on a platform when Acela goes by; feel the rush. That's safe, fast, comfortable travel on a reliable schedule, with fuel costs low enough to give the system a price edge on air travel -- or driving the Interstates.

The costs are not unreasonable, and HSR would actually be less dependent on federal money than highways or airlines. Add the FAA's $16 billion budget in 2010 to the cost of making America's airline industry profitable again after 9/11, plus the current subsidy levels that airlines enjoy...and that thoroughly price-deregulated and competitive industry is almost as expensive for the American taxpayer as our highways.

In today's dollars, the US interstate system cost about $425 billion to build; even the price at the time -- some $114 billion -- is more than twice the projected total cost of HSR networks serving 80% of Americans. Yet Amtrak, which took just $1.5 billion in federal funding last year, is "socialism" -- see how that works?

HSR is actually an example of democratic capitalism. Amtrak stands to get HSR funding, for example, but may also face competition for that funding. The California High Speed Rail Authority has received over 1,100 applications of interest from businesses large and small, local and global. Eight major rail companies were interested in the Florida line before Rick Scott canceled it, leaving Florida's contractor community feeling "burned" because transit creates more jobs than new roads (.PDF).

A recent travel survey found that 79% of Americans would like to have the option of a high speed train for their travel plans. Americans are excited; support is bipartisan, and enthusiasm for alternative choices of transportation crosses all ideological boundaries. David Frum likes it. George Will used to like it until Obama did. So why would Rick Scott cancel the Tampa-Orlando project contrary to popular opinion, his Senate Republican caucus, studies that showed it would be profitable, and an astounding industry guarantee that the state wouldn't lose one thin dime (.PDF)?

Well, it's not just because it's Obama's railroad, though that certainly plays a role. Critics called the Florida project a "showcase;" in fact, of all the HSR routes in the nation, the Tampa-Orlando line was simply the most ready to break ground. And it isn't that Scott doesn't like railroads, either. He has yet to make a final decision on the Sun Rail commuter project for Orlando, for instance, but his budget proposal includes the state funding. Scott Walker similarly has no problem applying for federal funds to upgrade existing Amtrak lines.

Sadly, the answer to this question takes us to an all too-familiar destination. In turning down federal funds, Rick Scott relied on a dubious report from the Reason Foundation claiming the line would lose money. If that name rings a bell, it's because David Koch is a Trustee of the Reason Foundation. Matt Welch, editor in chief of Reason magazine, is listed as an officer. Together, foundation and magazine promote the work of -- get this! Ayn Rand.

You can't make this stuff up.

Libertarian institutions hate railroads because the Koch fortune, and through it the various foundations and think tanks and magazines and PACs connected to the Koch fortune, make a lot more money from new roads than new passenger rails. Not only does your new highway have a covering of oil-based asphalt, but building new lanes on that highway instead of a high speed train in the median guarantees you will have no choice in intercity travel.

Their "libertarian" opposition to trains is about naked self-interest; they do their goddess proud.

In a world past peak oil, supply of oil and oil products will no longer meet demand. When gasoline costs $5 a gallon, it will add some 1.5 billion rides to America's public transit systems. Rick Scott has yet to explain how a rapidly-aging Florida population will get from Orlando to Tampa; are all those retirees going to drive? Will the highway be widened to thirty lanes? That would be fine with the Reason Foundation, though probably not Floridians.

Tea party Republicans all over America seem fixated on not meeting demographic or infrastructure challenges. They want to do away with New Hampshire's Rail Transit Authority, an entirely volunteer organization that costs taxpayers nothing, in a bid to block HSR in that state. In Ohio, which has turned its nose at HSR funding, the newly-appointed DOT chief -- a former asphalt industry lobbyist -- is systematically canceling streetcar and rail projects. Alabama, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have all turned down federal funding for HSR projects.

But it may not matter. Building a rail system was always going to be a patchwork affair: Texas seems fine with HSR; St. Louis-to-Chicago is a go; Washington State is in; California may actually shift to a transit-first policy for coastal areas, making rails higher priority than roads. Nevada wants to create 34,000 HSR jobs connecting Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The northeast is very interested in HSR, though there are some upstate Republicans in New York who don't get it. And in Florida, cities along the canceled line are bidding for the lost $2.4 billion as a consortium. When regional lines are built, the pressure on states to link their metro areas to HSR will only grow. For instance, Chicago and Minneapolis would love to meet in Madison; Scott Walker is standing in the way of their HSR love.

So it's time for progressives, liberals, and Democrats to get behind HSR. With rising oil prices, our national security and trade deficit are reason enough to invest in 21st Century transportation. The middle-class green jobs are even better. But a nationwide "going Galt" to declare our national transportation independence from the Kochs? That would be priceless. And precisely on time.

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Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

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