On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced a $53 billion plan to upgrade and build intercity passenger-rail networks. According to the Wall Street Journal, the six-year-program would provide 80% of Americans with access to passenger-rail service in 25 years. Critics contend that such a program is misguided, and that the only area where the Obama Administration should focus such efforts is the Northeast Corridor, the most congested in the nation.
Biden—himself a long-time commuter between his home state of Delaware and Washington, DC, on Amtrak trains— introduced the plan at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. $8 billion will be provided for passenger-rail projects in this year’s budget, which is to be unveiled next week. According to Bloomburg, there would be three categories of interconnected rail corridors:
Such corridors would be divided into three categories: “core express” for trains achieving speeds of between 125 and 250 miles per hour or more; “regional” lines for trains traveling between 90 to 125 miles per hour and “emerging” rail lines for passenger trains traveling as much as 90 miles per hour.
The federal government has already devoted $10.5 million to develop high-speed rail projects in California and Florida.
Republicans have already called for nixing plans for rail projects as part of their call to reduce the federal deficit. From the Wall Street Journal:
Rep. John L. Mica (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Railroads Subcommittee, criticized the rail plan.
“Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will,” Mr. Shuster said in a statement. Mr. Mica said the administration should focus its efforts on the Northeast Corridor, the most congested area for railway travel, rather than on other “marginal projects.”
New Republican governors of Ohio and Wisconsin recently returned federal funds for rail projects because of cost concerns. Florida’s new Republican governor has said he is reviewing whether plans for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando are viable.
NPR cites the President’s State of the Union Address in which
Obama set out of a goal of providing access to high-speed rail to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years. The Los Angeles Times reports the plan will face opposition from groups that believe the money should go to “what most people use — the existing road and bridge network.”
NPR provides some historical background via the Infrastructurist blog, which notes ‘some similarities between this plan and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision for a national expressway system, which he introduced in 1938 and wasn’t funded until 1956.’
Reps. Mica’s and Shuster’s comments are unfortunate and even short-sighted. I live in the Northeast and take the trains twice a week from our house in north-central New Jersey to my job in Jersey City, which is directly across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. I recently decided that it would be best for me to take the train more, rather than driving. One can get work and reading done on the train and I enjoy the communal experience of sharing a train car with other passengers. We certainly appreciate being able not to use our car so much, especially as gas prices rise.
With all this said, it’s not exactly a picnic to take the train, subway, etc.. The trains are crowded—there is often no place to sit at commute time—and, more and more, there have been delays in the form of equipment breakdowns, problems with the switches and such. But if we actually devoted sufficient funds to rail transit, these could be addressed, and perhaps even more trains on more routes devised. Further, trains make travel more accessible for those who are not able to drive or afford a car, including senior citizens and individuals with disabilities like my son.
A national rail system that actually (unlike Amtrak, sigh) gets you where you need to in a timely fashion is needed in our country. Yes, it would mean that Americans need to give up or at least let go of their romance with the car, sit beside a (gasp) stranger, and have to wait on a train platform to get home. Certainly, most people currently use the ‘existing road and bridge network,’ because it’s there and they have no options. But what if they had the choice between sitting on the interstate in commute traffic versus riding the rails?
Photo by cliff1066™.