Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Republican Case for Amtrak and High Speed Rail

In this guest post, Michael Stafford makes the Republican case for investing in passenger rail:

The Case for Passenger Rail: Why Saving Amtrak and the High Speed Rail Corridors Program Should be a Priority
by Michael Stafford

A record 28.7 million people traveled on Amtrak passenger trains in fiscal year 2010. Despite this, Congressional Republicans have targeted federal support of passenger rail transportation for elimination. Overall, the Spending Reduction Act of 2011 that has been proposed by the Republican Study Committee would end $1.565 billion in annual federal operating subsidies for Amtrak as well as $2.5 billion in intercity and high speed rail grants. The elimination of Amtrak’s federal subsidy could result in the end of inter-city passenger rail operations in the United States. In so doing, Congressional Republicans risk sacrificing our nation's long-term interests in favor of a rigid, doctrinaire, adherence to ideology.

Amtrak (formally known as the National Passenger Rail Corporation) is a government-owned corporation formed in 1971 by the Nixon administration to take over increasingly unprofitable intercity passenger rail service that had previously been operated, at a significant loss, by private railroads. It has been heavily dependent on federal subsidies throughout its entire existence. Amtrak, and funding for passenger rail projects in general, has long been a target of conservatives. In particular, conservatives point to Amtrak’s dependence on federal subsidies and its inability to be “self sufficient” or “profitable.” For many on the Right, “subsidy” is simply a dirty word.

According to former Amtrak President Alex Kummant, however, conservative criticism of passenger rail, “needs serious re-examination, because national transportation strategy is an issue of US national competitiveness, and passenger rail has a significant role to play… A major federal government role in building and maintaining significant national assets that make the country competitive is entirely consistent with conservative philosophy.” Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Richard Florida has made a similar point:
“It’s time to start thinking of our transit and infrastructure projects less in political terms and more as a set of strategic investments that are fundamental to the speed and scope of our economic recovery and to the new, more expansive economic geography required for long-run growth and prosperity.”
Indeed, the conservative fixation on “self sufficiency” ignores the roll historically played by government, at all levels, in developing our nation’s transportation infrastructure- from the canal, rail, and road building of the early/mid 19th Century, to the construction of the Interstate Highway system beginning in the 1950’s, to the High Speed Rail Corridors project today. Indeed, as one commentator has noted, “[s]ince the days of the ancient Greeks, government has subsidized transportation, building lighthouses and roads, dredging rivers, and so on.”

When it comes to passenger rail, conservatives are in desperate need of a paradigm shift; instead of framing the debate in terms of “self sufficiency” and profitability, conservatives should focus on the economic value of strategic investments in our transportation infrastructure. Simply put, no passenger rail system in the entire developed world is “self sufficient”- all require some form of public support. However, this is not a condemnation of passenger rail. Self-sufficiency is not the standard we utilize to gauge the value of other transportation modes in our economy. Both civil aviation and our nation’s highways benefit from a range of public subsidies and support- both direct, and indirect. Indeed, a case can be made that civil aviation is one of the most heavily subsidized industries in our nation today.

In the end, passenger rail provides a public service. And profitability, or “self sufficiency,” is not the most useful metric when gauging the value of public services. In addition, passenger rail provides a number of benefits to our economy. It plays a critical role, particularly in the Northeast Corridor region and in California, in reducing traffic congestion on our roadways, it reduces pollution and gasoline consumption, and it helps to reduce overall travel costs. These benefits would only increase if critical investments in modernizing our rail infrastructure, such as the High Speed Rail Corridors projects, were made.

In 2008, Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) which, among other things, established a high-speed rail corridor development program. The viability of many of the designated high-speed rail corridors is amply documented by research—indeed, many of these projects have been on the drawing board, or under consideration, for years. PRIIA represented a forward-looking, strategic, investment in our transportation infrastructure- one which will bring significant economic benefits to a diverse range of communities across the nation.

In his recent State of the Union speech,
President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to high speed rail, saying "[w]ithin 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail." The President’s vision of developing a state-or-the-art high speed rail passenger system is one Republicans should embrace. The High Speed Rail Corridors project is a long overdue recognition of a simple fact: a modern transportation system requires a modern infrastructure. In a way, it is to passenger rail what the development of the Interstate Highway system was to the automobile.

It’s time for conservatives to reconsider their historic opposition to federal funding for passenger rail. As Kummant has noted, “[t]he current approach of the right, basically ignoring the national competitiveness implications of transportation and the related energy issues, is an abdication of responsibility.” Striping a critical link from our nation's transportation system at this juncture will impede economic growth and recovery, and damage our competitiveness; and that is the last thing we ought to do. Indeed, today—a time of rising fuel costs and increasing global economic pressures—is actually the time to invest in developing a state-of-the-art 21st Century passenger rail infrastructure that will be the envy of the world.

Michael Stafford is a Wilmington, Delaware attorney and a former Republican Party officer who led the local party organization's Transportation Working Group during 2009 and 2010.


Blogger Tom Noyes said...

Mike's piece has been posted in FrumForum:

8:32 PM, February 03, 2011  
Blogger Dean said...

We are $14 Trillion in debt. Providing people a quick way to get from large city to large city is not a priority. November was a call for even Republicans to stop wasting tax payer dollars.

7:46 AM, February 25, 2011  

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