I don’t get a paper version of the Dispatch at home in Evanston, so I typically just check the headlines on the website and rarely click on the links to individual sections. I’m in Worthington for Thanksgiving though and I noticed this editorial that I normally would not have seen. Maybe some of you are online-only readers like me and also would have normally missed this:
Nation needs to consider public’s changing attitude about travel preferences
Saturday, November 24, 2007 2:54 AM
The nation’s transportation networks aren’t entirely in step with travelers’ needs and tastes.
…Congress and the president, as they consider federal subsidies for various modes of transportation and their infrastructure, have a duty to analyze whether the spending priorities of 10 years ago, before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, should remain in the same order. The systems that Americans used most often to travel from here to there in the last 30 to 40 years of the 20th century might not be their best choices for this century.
As Americans deal with yet another gasoline-price spike, the costs of overdependence on highways and the personal convenience of cars keep rising. Mass transportation, which spreads the expense over more people per vehicle, has become more appealing. On a per-passenger basis, trains use 20 percent less energy than planes and 27 percent less than cars.
…Federal subsidies over the past 30 years or more have favored air and highway travel while relegating passenger-train service to a side rail. Amtrak’s federal funding has remained virtually flat; its annual subsidy was $1.3 billion last year compared with federal funding of about $34 billion for highways and more than $14 billion for air travel. Even mass transit, primarily aimed at helping people get around within cities, drew about $8 billion in federal money.
…Instead of just stumbling along with temporary funding and make-do measures, Congress and the president should be designing long-term solutions that will ensure that America’s people and businesses have efficient means of travel, regardless of their destination.
The editorial seems to imply that Amtrak should receive the same number of dollars for operating funding as highways or air travel. This isn’t reasonable given the number of passengers served by each of the modes, but the point is well-taken. We need more transportation funding, particularly capital funding for new facilities and services. The funding for transportation isn’t enough to keep up with maintenance needs, let alone new capital projects. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates we need $60 Billion over 20 years to develop intercity corridor passenger rail service, which would be a great way to reduce the demand on highways and rail, especially through the holiday travel season.
With record deficits, dwindling gas tax revenues, and a weakening dollar, I don’t think additional funding is going to come from the federal government. I think it’s going to have to come from the private sector. Like the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road, Amtrak routes may be opportunities for public-private partnerships to attract new investment.