Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

A day of reckoning

Posted in America, Commuter, High Speed, Infrastructure, Politics by Chairman Pip on 27 October 2010

On Tuesday 2nd November, the United States goes to the polls once again, this time for the mid-term elections (“mid-term” meaning that it is at the midway point of the four year Presidential term). The entire House of Representatives, 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate, 38 state and territorial governorships, 46 state legislatures and countless other elections are all taking place on this day, a day that is being seen as very much a barometer of opinion for President Obama and the policies he has enacted in the last two years. Opinion polls have come out suggesting that the Democrats could well lose control of both chambers of Congress, leaving him in a weakened position at the federal level, while it is also likely that the Democrats could lose a number of governorships to the Republicans. Obama’s policies, especially in regards to the reduction of the deficit, have been vehemently opposed by many of the more right-wing elements, with the so-called “Tea Party” movement in the vanguard of this opposition. Obama’s main policy thrust has been his fiscal stimulus, enacted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in which the Federal Government has put close to $800bn of public money into the economy, in the form of investment in infrastructure, welfare, health and education. However, the Tea Party movement, and many other right-wing Republican groups, believe that public spending is already too high, and the fiscal stimulus package of the ARRA pushes it over the edge. As a consequence, this movement, which has been gaining support all across the country, is now sponsoring candidates in many elections, pushing out even moderate Republicans.

Where  am I going? Well, one of the main bugbears seems to be the improvement of the railways. As part of the fiscal stimulus, President Obama put $8bn of federal funding into the development of high speed rail, while locally there are also many commuter rail schemes proposed or under way. But, with the approach of the elections, state officials have started sitting on their hands, while Republicans shout loud their opposition to any such scheme. Scott Walker, who is running for the Governorship of Wisconsin, has been the most vocal of these, even going so far as to set up a website called to campaign against the provision of over $800m for a new railway route between the cities of Milwaukee and Madison:

Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray La Hood was in Wisconsin to release $46.7 million of the $810 million in federal stimulus money designated for a train line between Milwaukee and Madison. Releasing these federal funds now is both premature and irresponsible.  Public support for the Madison-Milwaukee train has fallen to just 41% as weary taxpayers watch our roads and bridges crumble without sufficient funds to repair them. Still, Secretary La Hood declared that: “High-speed rail is coming to Wisconsin,” and “there’s no stopping it.” I am drawing a line in the sand Mr. President:  No matter how much money you and Governor Doyle try to spend before the end of the year, I will put a stop to this boondoggle the day I take office.

Additionally, Rick Scott in Florida, Meg Whitman in California and John Kasich in Ohio have all come out against high speed rail projects (whether they are genuinely high speed, or just improving the speed of existing inter-city services to something approaching 100mph) in their states. On a more local level, Chris Christie, the incumbent Governor of New Jersey (which is one of four states not up for election), has been threatening to pull the plug on New Jersey Transit’s planned tunnel project, Access to the Region’s Core, intended to increase the capacity of the existing North River Tunnels, while the outgoing Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, has been sitting on signing the environmental impact statement for Honolulu’s planned light rail system, to the extent that it will be left to her successor to deal with. The Republican candidate, James Aiona, has stated that he will wait until a review into the finances of the project is complete before deciding whether or not to approve the EIS. This is in spite of $1.5bn of federal money being approved for the project, and the view that it is not a state project, but a city one, and thus it is not the job of the governor to make these decisions.

Undeniably, rail is expensive. The Honolulu project is a special case, because it has to be built from scratch, unlike other cities that have been able to start up commuter rail services using existing infrastructure. But Honolulu is also the major urban area on the island of Oahu, and is noted for having problems with traffic. Likewise the North Rail Tunnels are at 100% capacity, meaning it is impossible to run any more trains through them, so traffic builds up on the George Washington Bridge and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. Even though America loves the car, even Americans must realise it’s better, if you’re commuting into a city centre, to leave your car at home and take the train. Similarly, although the geographical area of the country means it is not feasible to make a fast inter-city journey from, say New York to Dallas by rail, by connecting cities within a region improves economic prospects exponentially, as well as the (yawn) environmental impact. Not only would building high speed rail lines (or even simply improving existing routes) create jobs, but it also turns city islands into larger communities by allowing more people to get jobs in the cities who may not live in them, or withing driving distance. The private sector, which the “Tea Party” favours as the means of job creation, can’t afford to finance such mega-projects on its own – look at Eurotunnel as a prime example. So the public sector needs to pay for the lion’s share. So, one has to ask the question – why does Scott Walker not want a means of improving communication between Wisconsin’s capital and its largest city? Why does Meg Whitman oppose a way of getting from the centre of San Francisco to the centre of Los Angeles in two hours? What is James Aiona’s problem with getting traffic off the roads clogging up the island paradise of Honolulu? America is approaching a day of reckoning in regards to its future rail prospects. It was founded on the back of the railways. It could be resurrected by the railways if it wants. Does it want to be?


3 Responses

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  1. jenn said, on 27 October 2010 at 8:58 pm

    We Americans like our cars because the majority of our public transportation systems SUCK! That, and we’re lazy.

    • Chairman Pip said, on 28 October 2010 at 11:23 am

      So, if there is money available, and there are schemes ready to get off the ground, would you support them?

  2. Claire said, on 29 October 2010 at 1:38 pm

    It’s the opinion of the people of the USA that matters here. How do they come to these percentages (“Public support for the Madison-Milwaukee train has fallen to just 41% as weary taxpayers watch our roads and bridges crumble”)? I mean, if commuters and travellers etc are being properly consulted and that 41% is genuinely reflective, fair enough but exactly where do they get these figures from? I don’t think rail projects will be as successful in America as here in Britain and I agree projects of these costs should be treated with caution and fully considered before going ahead. However, the government needs to first advertise the benefits of rail (high-speed or otherwise), as it may be that, having grown up travelling everywhere by car, it hardly occurs to some people to use the train. Many of the benefits of rail are more relevant today than ever before:
    -quicker (sometimes – depends on exactly where you’re going to and from really)
    -not driving enables you to use your travelling time for something else – work, sleep, eating, whatever
    Not being over there, I don’t know how much these benefits have been promoted but I really think people should be made aware, as you often point out, Pip, so they can weigh up the pros and cons and balance cost etc against benefits. Then they can decide if they think it is good use of public money. In addition, the government needs to try and get a forecast of the usage there would be. If lots of people say they would be likely to use it, it should be a winner and could lead to further rail expansion but the last thing anyone would want would be a failure and incapability to sell enough tickets to recoup the money spent on building it!

    I believe rail lines like this would be good for the USA but the country has to want them for them to succeed. Survey the people and find out.

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