Should Georgia improve rail?

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.

More rail needed for Georgia’s future

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.

High speed rail is too costly

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.

20 comments Add your comment

Don

June 11th, 2013
2:02 pm

The real question that needs to be asked about building new transportation capacity is how do the alternatives compare. That is:

What would another lane on I-85 cost?
What’s another runway and terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson cost?
What’s the cost to upgrade or build out a passenger rail route?

What is the added capacity of each?

Don

June 11th, 2013
12:23 pm

Baruch Feigenbaum has done a world class job of cherry-picking.

I’ll just pull on fact. Acela ridership. It’s only 1/3 of Amtrak’s ridership on the Northeast Corridor – and not fundamentally different in speed.

There is a flip side to most of the arguments he’s chosen to present. You don’t have to search very hard to find them.

Don

June 11th, 2013
11:34 am

The VERY FIRST STEP should be to leverage what we have. Amtrak’s Crescent.

1. Put in a suburban Atlanta stop between Duluth and Burford. More people live within 10 miles of this location than around the Atlanta Peachtree station. These are people who would use a train if it went useful places at useful times of the day.

Which brings us to…

2. Run the train where people are when they are awake. The Crescent’s current schedule dates from the early 1950s when businessmen needed overnight travel between the Northeast and the South. Back then, the Piedmont between Atlanta and Charlotte was just small towns with a few small cities. Those days are gone. Spartansburg-Greenville is home to more than a million people. Charlotte has two million. Atlanta, over 5 million. Flip the Crescent’s schedule around. Let it make a day trip from the Northeast to Atlanta and then run overnight through the small towns of AL and MS.

This can be done almost immediately at near zero cost. It would be a good barometer for the demand for passenger rail service in the region.

Just do it.

ddarren

June 11th, 2013
11:23 am

I concur Bernie you hit the nail on the head! Other major metropolitan cities are moving forward with mass transit and light rail. Atlanta and the South is stagnent it is regressing and not progressing unlike the rest of the nation. Could it be the politics?

Jm

June 11th, 2013
10:41 am

$50,000 a year sounds expensive. Maybe that’s because this guys is trying to use numbers to mislead.

How much does $50,000 a year per seat equal per day? $137. Not bad at all depending on a variety of circumstances.

The up front cost of an airline seat is over $200,000 per seat! Oh lordy! But they can make a profit. Point is, Feigenbaum’s analysis isn’t worth very much.

Passenger rail isn’t cheap. But neither is gridlock and lost human productivity. So a more in depth analysis from an unbiased researcher would be valuable.

Dusty

June 11th, 2013
10:40 am

Well, I see that facts and figures reign here as they should. Perhaps! It is obvious that there is no “dream” here . Without the dream, nothing much happens and good projects sink under the load of heavy numbers.

We were fortunate in the past. The impassioned arose and carried the country forward when others said “Forget it!”. They did it in all kinds of ways.

George Washington looked at the half frozen Delaware River and said “We are going to cross it!”

The Wright brothers said “That box with wings will fly!”

Edison said: “Turn off the oil lamps. We have electricity now.”

Alexander Graham Bell said ” Stop shouting. I can hear you across this wire.”

Henry Ford said to his horse “We are getting four wheels soon.”

The astronauts put a flag on the moon and we knew they could do it.

And can we forget the teenager who came out of his garage with his new put together electronic device and said :”This will work.” The age of electronics gives birth.

All I am asking for at this moment is inspiration. Picture a super fast train line running from top to bottom of our eastern shore with states joining in a fortuitous chain of rapid transportation. Georgia could be the “jewel in the crown” of future vision. Yep, we can still make dreams come true. R U listening? Someone will see the future.

MANGLER

June 11th, 2013
10:31 am

If your bullet train ticket between Atlanta and Charlotte or from Atlanta to Miami were to include a zip-car type rental waiting for you there at the station, then sure, that would work nicely. However, when zooming from city to city that doesn’t have an integrated transit system, there is hardly a justification for using a train (outside of simply liking to ride a train). Riding from Boston to Manhattan on a train is nice, since both of those cities have multi-modal transit options and you are allowed to use a laptop and phone on a train ride without getting yelled at.

They hit a key point for passenger service, the 200 to 500 mile range. Anything longer than that and you start seriously losing ground to flying. From Atlanta, that’s hitting only a few cities large enough to warrant having train service.

As for ridership cost … that’s a huge detractor as well. I would pay similar amounts for a train vs. a plane, but not 2 or 3 times what a flight would cost.

Dusty

June 11th, 2013
9:44 am

SAWB

Have you never heard of THE NANCY HANKS? It was a nice train ride from Atlanta to Savannah. It stopped at every little town on the line and blew its whistle.. Lotsa fun for the kiddies! Speed was inconsequential.

The NANCY disappeared into the failing financial fog of few passengers and was never seen again.

What did you have in mind?

Babs J

June 11th, 2013
9:14 am

More rail service is needed! Don’t really care whether it is high speed or not, what I care about is there is no way for Seniors to still invest and see the great things that have happened in this country once their driving is limited. Have you been to that bus terminal lately? What Senior citizen would chance that? How will I get on the bus? Then.how am I to sit on that bus with such limited space, not to mention the nasty restrooms with no attendant to service. Quit thinking so much about yourself in your youthfulness and your wallet. We built this country once to accomodate all the people, Atlanta Forward means one day you will stuck also without a decent way to visit your Grands and Greatgrands and not enough money to fly (remember you have to pay for the bags of presents also). Think ahead but also think back-WE THE PEOPLE means all age groups!

Gordon Kilgore

June 11th, 2013
9:11 am

What a difference! I read with interest Tuesday’s discussion about rail transportation in Georgia. The two guest columns were written by Gordon Kenna, for more passenger rail and Baruch Feigenbaum, against more passengers rail in Georgia. What stood out to me was how the two positions were presented. Gordon Kenna said that more rail was needed for Georgia’s future. His discussion was for the most part based on feelings and ideals. He was probably correct when he said that Georgia stopped investing in rail about 50 years ago when the interstate highways were being built and stated that Atlanta was built around a rail system in the 1800’s. He also mentioned the increased capacity of the Savannah port and how that would place a burden on our roads. Who says that the increase freight can’t be delivered by our existing rail system? In my mind this has little to do with passenger rail service. The rest of Gordon Kenna’s column is feelings backed up by no facts.
On the other hand, Baruch Feigenbaum column: “Too costly: The train has left the station” is laced with hard facts. After reviewing his data it appears that only people with money to burn would spend it on passenger rail service for Georgia. I have travelled extensively and experienced the passenger rail service in Europe and Asia. While these systems are probably heavily subsidized by governments they serve a very different market than what we have in Georgia.
It is time to face the facts that in Georgia like a lot of the USA people live some distance from urban centers and require personal transportation from their homes. In my case I live in a subdivision in Coweta County about 40 miles from the center of Atlanta. There will never be rail service within walking distance of my house so a car is needed to at least get to a bus stop which would then deliver me to a rail station or a Marta station. For all the trouble and time it would take, I might as well drive.