5 Reasons Conservatives Should Support a Modern, Customer Focused, National Passenger Train System
It is only natural to harbor a certain amount of humility when assessing important policy issues. People knew things in the past, and who are we to presume in our modernity that we always know best? There is a reason why train travel was so critically important in the building of a nation- and many reasons why it remains important that are often overlooked. As you'll see below, the loss of an extensive passenger train network was not a free market outcome. It is time that our transportation policy restorted a sense of rational perspective, so that we may:
1) Protect National Security
Nations hostile to US interests control an ever-growing amount of the world’s oil supply. What President Bush called our “addiction to oil” makes the US especially vulnerable to supply reductions and interruptions.Letting fuel-efficient trains (both diesel and electric) handle a bigger portion of our traveling and shipping needs will reduce reliance on fuel-intensive – and polluting – cars, trucks and planes. Because trains can operate entirely on electricity, rail is the only transportation technology that could operate without burning petroleum. After 9/11, trains were America’s only functioning commercial transportation. The interconnected national rail system provided a critically important mobility choice when the air system shut down. Security demands redundancy
2) Improve America’s Competitive Position in the Global Economy
Continued reliance on energy-intensive road and air transportation will place the US at a growing disadvantage with other industrialized nations that are building modern, energy-efficient rail transportation. Emphasis on road transportation compounds the disadvantage for the US because the massive amount of land required for parking vehicles has created low-density sprawl that requires Americans to travel ever-greater distances to accomplish the tasks of everyday life and forces the use of automobiles. Originally developed to help Americans conquer distance, the automobile perversely creates distance by insisting on more space for itself. By contrast, trains use space efficiently, promoting more compact, higher-quality development that reduces the distances people must travel.
3) Deliver Economic Efficiency
US railroads have made enormous strides in improving their efficiency – both in operations and in executing large-scale infrastructure programs. Their level of efficiency today is extraordinary compared to 20 years ago. Railroads know how to squeeze value out of every dollar they spend. This expertise means that taxpayer will receive a high return from public/private partnerships with railroads to improve and expand passenger train service. The Federal government, by contrast, parcels money out to states for roads without “purpose, oversight or accountability,” or “goals such as keeping bridges in good repair” and reducing pollution and congestion (Testimony by Robert Puentes of The Brookings Institution to an October 25, 2007 House Budget Committee hearing on transportation policy) . Eighty years after the first federal highway program, the US still applies no recognized business or accounting standard to document the performance of either the total highway system or individual system segments.By contrast, Congress requires detailed reports from Amtrak even though it represents one of the smallest parts of the federal transportation budget.
4) Support Freedom of Choice
Americans who do not drive have no freedom to travel; 100 million Americans fall into this category. Other industrialized nations offer their citizens the freedom of choice that high-quality train service provides.Millions use their own money to vote for trains by purchasing tickets. In America, many cities and towns -- particularly the suburbs where a majority of Americans now live -- have no transportation choice. People living in, or trying to reach, these locations must drive – if for no other reason than to connect with the nearest point where air or rail transportation is available. Trains provide an effective, economic way to bind the country together because they are the only form of mobility that can connect all three American settlement patterns—suburbs, small towns and large cities—with equal efficiency. The “popularity” of road and air transportation is artificial and does not reflect actual consumer choice in a free market.Rather, it represents consumer adaptation to a one-size-fits-all government policy that provides access to expensive and scarce public infrastructure at prices well below what markets would charge. The federal government dedicates huge tax streams each year through “trust funds,” while local, county and state agencies leverage federal dollars with even greater sums. Railroad transportation has never received equivalent public funding – even in the days of land grants. Despite billions raised each year through state, local and federal motor-fuel taxes and the federal Airline Ticket Tax, property taxes, sales taxes and other taxes raised from non-users subsidize about one third of road and civil aviation costs. These costs do not include the invisible subsidies that occur the when land consumed for parking, roads and airports robs local communities of property taxes they would otherwise collect. Railroads must maintain, and pay property taxes on, all of their facilities and real estate. They must also earn a financial return on their investment in infrastructure – costs not imposed on airlines or motor vehicles. To become effective and commercially popular, rail transportation must enjoy funding equity with other modes.
5) Build Strong Communities
Railroad stations are or can be anchors for urban centers and engines that drive urban improvements and economic development. By reducing the amount of valuable space consumed by motor-vehicle parking, trains (intercity, commuter and transit) generate high quality, compact urban development. High-quality, high value property development generates larger assessed values and greater tax revenue to support city finances. Compact development offers Americans new lifestyle choices not currently available in suburban areas – choices that encourage walking, promote interpersonal contact, and reduce distances traveled and time spent traveling.These new choices offer people ways to spend more time with families, at work, or on community activities, and less time behind the wheel stuck in traffic. Trains provide universal access, giving all people regardless of age or circumstance the freedom and independence to travel to places near and far without having to rely on friends, relatives and family members for “taxi service.” Trains will reverse the social engineering inherent in current transportation policy, which limits choice and forces people to drive, fly or stay home. As Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters noted in testimony to Congress, “Transportation lies at the core of the freedom we as Americans enjoy.” Public investment to create a modern, customer-focused, nationwide passenger-train system will restore the freedom of choice that the private auto promised but never fully delivered.
Public investment in trains advances many key elements of the Conservative agenda. Self-professed conservatives represent roughly 40% of voters. The only segment of the conservative movement that opposes trains is the Libertarians, who represent barely 4% but gain far more attention to their viewpoints than their numbers justify because they have think tanks in virtually every state and share their paid consultants.
The Interstate Highway System resulted from a political decision to invest massive amounts of taxpayer funds in the nation’s road infrastructure. The impact that decision had on the American landscape and way of life took decades to unfold. Similarly, decisions today to invest significant taxpayer funds in America’s railroad system will deliver new choices and enormous benefits for generations of Americans far into the future.
A changing world demands policy that is relevant to the future. The need for basic reform of federal transportation policy represents a critically important issue that all those who aspire to lead this nation must address.
"The Rail Passenger Association's recognition of the essential work done by SMART-TD members aboard Amtrak during this difficult period is appreciated. The Golden Spike Award serves as a testament to the compassion and dedication our conductors, assistant conductors and other workers exhibit constantly through times both ordinary and extraordinary."
Jeremy Ferguson, SMART-TD President
December 21, 2021, on the Association awarding its 2021 Golden Spike Award to the Frontline Amtrak Employees.