Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Freight rail companies say there’s no room on their tracks for commuter rail within Atlanta’s Perimeter. Today, a rail advocate writes about the shortsightedness of not improving passenger service as an expanded Port of Savannah increases truck traffic and adds to highway maintenance bills. In our second column, a transportation analyst criticizes high-speed rail as unnecessary and too expensive.
Commenting is open below.
By Gordon Kenna
Atlanta was settled along the creeks, ridges and hills mostly in the Chattahoochee River basin. First came the crooked winding paths that became roads, followed by railroads from every direction. During the Civil War, Georgia’s rail infrastructure made Atlanta the most strategic location in the South. Our continued investments in highways, airports and ports leveraged rail’s early success.
But now our legacy rail infrastructure is the weak link to modern Georgia’s transportation trifecta.
Our roads, airport and world-class port are the envy of our neighbors. Transportation infrastructure is the largest capital expense of government, and Georgia has invested heavily in roads, airports and ports.
But Georgia stopped investing in rail more than 50 years ago, when our interstate highways were being built. We allowed our rail network to operate largely without a public partner. The track bed that was first laid out, literally in the horse-and-buggy era, never moved to a modernized practical and efficient setting.
Largely because of the success of rail, the city created congestion in the form of higher and mixed-use that makes rail movements difficult and slow. Far too much of our rail infrastructure still goes through the center of the region instead of bypassing to facilities away from the congestion. This old track network for freight limits — and could eliminate — future options for commuter rail service.
There is another even more serious consequence of our inadequate rail infrastructure.
When the enlarged Port of Savannah receives larger ships, the increase in highway freight traffic will put our road infrastructure at serious risk. This has serious consequences for drivers and the DOT budget. Heavy vehicles have a far greater impact on road and bridge maintenance than automobiles. The $652 million harbor project will add billions to Georgia’s highway maintenance costs in urbanized areas — unless we have rail infrastructure to handle some of the heavier freight. Drivers will also pay for the port’s success in the form of more truck traffic congestion on our highways.
Unfortunately, Georgia’s transportation funding is limited to supporting roads and bridges. For three generations, the gas tax was fine for highways, but now even that mechanism is inadequate. Today, legislative approval is necessary for virtually every other transportation expenditure — and the Legislature isn’t a body with long-range vision or the DNA for ambitious projects.
We had that vision in our youth. Today, we are more cautious, conservative and constrained by our self-imposed limits. While we search for more user-pay options, we still need resources for capital funding. We need leadership and planning more than ever. We must address the reality of operations and maintenance funding for all our investments. Most of all, we need to stop pretending that transportation is strictly a private market paid for only by users.
A recognition that transportation is most efficient when it is multi-modal is a good place to start our rethinking process.
Gordon Kenna is CEO of Georgians For Passenger Rail.
By Baruch Feigenbaum
Discussions are resuming in the Southeast about a high-speed rail corridor. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that high-speed rail’s limited success in Europe and Asia is not transferable to the U.S.
From a financial standpoint, things don’t look good. The majority of high-speed rail lines require large government subsidies from both general taxpayers and drivers. Even with generous subsidies, traveling by high-speed rail is still more expensive than flying for 12 of the 23 most popular high-speed rail routes in the world. Evidence suggests it can only be competitive on routes that are 200 to 500 miles in length.
High-speed rail is also very expensive to build. Most new routes cost at least $10 million per mile to construct. The cheapest European rail line costs more than $50,000 per seat to operate annually. A U.S. high-speed rail line would need ridership of 6 million to 9 million people per year to break even. The high-speed Acela service, despite operating in the busy Northeast Corridor, averages only 3.4 million passengers per year.
Advocates cite other advantages for high-speed rail, but most fall apart under close examination:
Environment: High-speed rail creates more pollution than it prevents because building a high-speed rail line is very energy-intensive.
Economic development: High-speed rail does not create much new development; it merely redirects development from one area to another.
Mobility: High-speed rail is unlikely to improve mobility since most of its potential passengers already travel by air.
Choice: Customers can already choose between a low-cost bus, a fast plane or a personalized car trip.
Most countries have built high-speed rail to relieve passenger overcrowding on their existing lines. The U.S. lacks this overcrowding, which suggests consumer demand for high-speed rail may not be there. Furthermore, freight rail dominates track usage, and railroad companies are reluctant to relinquish capacity, as is evident in the discussions surrounding the proposed multimodal passenger terminal in downtown Atlanta.
Any U.S. rail operator will have to compete on the same terms that cause Amtrak to lose large amounts of money each year. Railways are subject to outdated labor laws that were enacted when railroads did not face competition. Operating a passenger railroad in the existing regulatory environment is not a profitable proposition.
Our core cities, where people are most likely to board high-speed trains, are much less dense than European or Asian cities, which also limits the potential market.
The U.S. has far higher rates of car ownership than most other countries. Gas taxes are lower, road tolls are less common, and many cities — especially in the South and West — have grown up around the automobile.
As a result, high-speed rail is best regarded as a luxury this country cannot afford. For far less money, we could create a world-class highway and aviation system with first-rate bus and airplane service and far more flexibility.
Baruch Feigenbaum is transportation policy adviser at the Reason Foundation and a senior fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.