The rail versus highway debate is getting heated as a six-year, multi-billion-dollar transportation reauthorization bill stalls in Congress. The debate is strikingly similar to the highway debate at the turn of the last century when inter-jurisdictional squabbling over issues such as taxation and spending, suburban versus urban and environmental justice were the same ones facing highway builders. Ironically, the answer to our rail problems lies in the history of our highway system.
Once upon a time, counties controlled highways and the rich ones had good roads while the poor or indifferent counties had mud paths. It took the U.S. Armys first cross-country convoy in 1919 a grueling 56 days to travel from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, averaging 50 miles per day. That was a wake-up call and character builder for young Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a member of this convoy.
The Federal-aid Road Bill of 1921 and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1954, signed by President Eisenhower, created a national emphasis on funding and establishing standards through delegation of power to the states. We no longer hit a bump every time we go from one county to another.
We have since poured enough concrete on our Interstates to pave a road to the moon five times over. It has changed our lives, giving us unimaginable economic prosperity and freedom. It also has created an over-dependence on fossil fuel and, for some, brought the city too close to the village. But the politics of "bringing home the bacon" resulted in enthusiastic politicians getting more and more money for local community projects, which helped local contractors and businesses prosper, thereby insuring re-election and more money.
The debate over rail is not about a mode of transportation but fear of change. The arguments over high costs and underutilization are the same hackneyed arguments made about highways a century ago. Folks obsessed with the notion of rail being an unaffordable subsidy should realize that their unrealistically cheap food is the result of a massive agricultural subsidy. And we should not forget that our highway system was built through taxation, not with tolls.
Our road system is great and has served us well. But in many urban areas, the system is overwhelmed. We cant clog our national and state economic arteries with short-distance metropolitan travel. The current system needs a rail bypass.
The first step in realizing a viable national rail system is to educate everyone that rail is just another type of road and that it has the potential to relieve congestion.
Creating a state-level vision for rail should help marginalize local political jurisdictional squabbles. Forming a rail office within each state transportation department to administer the rail program for all metropolitan areas would allow it to be done on a template similar to highway program.
The state should levy a uniform metropolitan sales tax for metro areas exceeding a population of 200,000. Federal transit money also should go into this state account. Regions violating Clean Air Act pollution standards should be required to transfer half of their congestion mitigation and air quality funds to the rail account.
States should publish a long- and short-range statewide rail plan in cooperation with metropolitan planning organizations. Once the plan is in place, the state could issue grants to the local transit agency for bus operation according to an agreed-on formula based on population, route network and usage. Additional money and anticipated revenue could be used by the state to procure bonds to expedite rail programs.
Under such an approach, the state also would have the flexibility to shift funds regionally to build the system faster. The state then could transfer the operation and maintenance of the built railroad system to the local transit agency, just as we did when building the national highway system.