Amtrak is into one of its classic budget squeezes; some long-distance lines may be axed. The country is in an economic downturn. A conservative president sits in the White House.
Yet oddly enough, the prospects may be the brightest ever for serious national investment in passenger rail.
The reason is clear, says James RePass, president of the National Corridors Initiative: Americans are increasingly caught in monumental metro-area traffic jams. Air travel remains "miserable," even in the current slump. "We're at a tipping point. Both the highway and air models of transportation are seizing up at the same time."
For years, the states, and more recently the U.S. Conference of Mayors, have been pushing for broadened intercity rail service. And now, Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress seem to be catching on. A Senate majority 56 senators led by Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and including both Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi are cosponsors of a High Speed Rail Investment Act.
The measure, letting Amtrak sell $12 billion in bonds for major intercity rail systems over the next decade, has 164 House sponsors. The government would give tax credits to bondholders, relieving Amtrak from paying interest. States would have to provide a 20-percent match.
The $12 billion plan opens the door to big-time financing for rail. Its passage would mark a historic shift from the hammerlock that highways and airports currently hold on significant federal funding.
The General Accounting Office believes much more perhaps $100 billion will be needed to build a full-blown, high-speed U.S. rail system. The reply of increasingly bold rail advocates: if billions of highway dollars can't lick congestion, why not giant outlays for rails? And rails, they add, could provide radical relief for clogged airports. Trains make eminently more sense for distances under 300 miles.
There are literally hundreds of shorter-distance city pairs from Charlotte-Atlanta to Dallas-Houston to San Francisco-Sacramento, plus innumerable smaller cities in between ready to benefit from faster or brand new rail service. Thousands of short air hauls could be eliminated, saving billions in airport expansions.
Nine Midwestern states are backing a $4.1 billion rail plan to create a 3,000-mile network of rapid trains using tracks that radiate from Chicago to St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis and Indianapolis.
Interest is also keen in other high-density corridors including the Pacific Northwest, Texas, the Gulf Coast, California, and a potential Southeast system linking the Northeast Corridor to cities in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush killed off an expensive rail proposal only to see 53 percent of voters last year back a referendum mandating a high-speed system linking the state's five largest urban areas.
Within metro areas, public sentiment also seems to be shifting to acceptance of light-rail systems as a way that cities can at least provide residents with mobility choices and ways to bypass stalled traffic.
New or extended light-rail systems are under construction from Dallas to Los Angeles, St. Louis to Salt Lake City. Some proposals are being snagged by cost, including controversy over an extraordinarily expensive tunnel in Seattle's projected Sound Transit line.
Advocates complain that light-rail systems in contrast to new highways are almost always subjected to hard-to-win local referendums. But the supporters keep on trying. Kansas City tries for the fourth time on Aug. 7.
It is true that in almost every city considering light rail, early enthusiasm is followed by "expert" projections suggesting the number of riders will be lower than supporters expected. But advocates are now starting to belittle the experts' dreary forecasts. Look at higher-than-predicted ridership on new lines of such cities as Dallas and St. Louis, they say. What's more vital, they argue: a community's commitment to rail sends positive market signals that encourage businesses and residential developers to invest along the rights of way.
The government is not getting enough bang for its highway buck, an Indiana resident argued at a July hearing, adding: "Rails were built to last. What about concrete?"
RePass suggests that if consultants had been hired in the 1860s to justify building coast-to-coast rail, "Omaha would be the westernmost city in the U.S., the transcontinental railroad would never have been built, and George W. Bush would be king of Texas."
Call it cheeky, if you will, but rail advocates' boldness and the political punch of their arguments are definitely on the rise.
Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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