Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Imagine a multimodal Northeast Corridor

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Creative vision in Washington, D.C., is not quite an oxymoron, but seemingly only extraordinary external events cause it to materialize.

acela-princeton-junction-njPerhaps there was prediction of a month of Sundays when Congress authorized land grants for a transcontinental railroad; expectation of hell freezing over when lawmakers approved construction of the Interstate Highway System; and sightings of flying pigs when the House of Representatives combined aviation, highway, and railroad funding authorization and oversight into a single Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

It may require the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series before the entire Congress ceases to treat passenger transportation project-authorization and funding as if aviation, highways, and trains were mutually exclusive even though travelers frequently combine all three in their travel plans.

Sadly, the business of Congress and federal agencies too often is redecorating the status quo.

Case in point was a congressional decision—packaged as fiscal stimulus in the midst of a deep recession—to appropriate $8 billion for advancement of high speed rail along 13 scattered corridors.

What followed the congressional appropriation was political tomfoolery. The Department of Transportation, led then by former congressman Ray LaHood, a consummate Chicago pol most mindful of an upcoming White House election, sprinkled the federal dollars hither and yon—with emphasis on radiant press releases praising the Obama administration. Missing was a thoughtful blueprint to assure construction and completion of a single successful high speed rail project to demonstrate that the time for high-speed passenger rail was upon us.

Properly appalled was former House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, no friend of Amtrak, who, in a rare moment of non-political candor, was spot-on that the money could have been put to tangible productive use as a meaningful down payment to reconstruct and upgrade the 456-mile Northeast Corridor into America's first truly high speed rail corridor, delivering measurably faster travel times and significantly more seats to the one-fifth of the American population living within its proximity and stuck in aviation and highway gridlock and insufficient and too-slow passenger-rail capacity.

"The nation's best shot at a viable high speed rail line is the Boston-to-Washington corridor," Mica said. "Any further money for high for high speed rail needs to solely come to the Northeast Corridor."

Visionaries might add that too many lawmakers and bureaucrats are wedged in the think and sludge of status quo politics, failing to understand that advancing passenger transportation is not an exercise where air, highway and train public transportation funding decisions are mutually exclusive; or that the definition of high speed trains shouldn't be so narrow as to assume it is only locomotives pulling coaches, sleeping cars, and diners over steel rails.

New technologies such as Hyperloop maglev, vertical take-off and landing aircraft, and driverless cars should be included jointly in every vision of future passenger transportation.

It is time for Congress to embrace a multimodal vision of passenger transportation if America is to meet growing transportation demand constrained by land use and environmental considerations.

Let us be especially bold in considering the Northeast Corridor, the longest unbroken longitudinal right-of-way in America.

Spending, as Amtrak proposes, $117 billion over 25 years to increase corridor train speeds and decrease travel time will not alone meet the region's later-century travel demands, which also include aviation and highways.

Constructing new airports or a second I-95 is infeasible given the density of population and housing that makes nearly impossible the acquisition of land. Even in rural America, the proposed Tongue River Railroad, intended as an additional carrier of Powder River Basin coal, has been in two-decade limbo owing to environmental and landowner lawsuits.

What if the existing Northeast Corridor were converted to a joint highway-train corridor to cohabit with civilian use of the vertical take-off and landing capability of the tilt-rotor Osprey V-22—currently in military use—whose 24-seat capacity could be increased for civilian use? With Osprey landing pads atop commuter and long-distance train stations that serve also as rest stops for a new Interstate highway, commercial development delivering new rent and tax dollars would expand significantly. The Osprey could provide short-distance east-west air transportation and free up, at commercial airports, needed gates for longer-distance air travel.

We're talking about turning the corridor's surface-track route into a multi-lane, higher-speed modern tolled highway, with dedicated auto and big-truck lanes, plus tracks for freight and commuter trains, and with pylons erected to support a high speed rail, Hyperloop, or maglev operation between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

Parochial thinkers will balk that the cost is prohibitive, but the opportunity cost of the status quo may be even greater as the American population expands by a predicted 100 million over the next 40 years. Neither the current I-95, existing major airports or Amtrak's Northeast Corridor operation—even with high speed rail—will be sufficient to meet the region's mid and late-century travel demands.

The acceleration of technological innovation is making obsolete traditional passenger-travel solutions. Indeed, within the next two decades, driverless "intelligent" cars will be operating on highways, using computers, sensors, radar, lasers, transponders, and GPS to navigate and determine acceleration, speed, vehicle separation, and braking, much as Positive Train Control will accomplish for railroads.

Researchers at Virginia Tech, Carnegie-Mellon University, General Motors, and Google have been testing intelligent car prototypes, and the State of Nevada already has approved their use on highways. House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who recently took a 30-mile test ride in an intelligent car prototype, said, "It's the future of transportation and it's here. We have to start to figure out how to embrace this technology because it's coming." Shuster also is on record that there is "need for government to erect and maintain public works to facilitate commerce."

A multimodal Northeast Corridor, jointly serving commercial aviation, highways, and regional passenger ("commuter") and long-distance trains, is a concept as worthy of consideration as was the vision of a transcontinental railroad or construction of the Interstate Highway System.

Shuster's intelligent-car ride is noteworthy because with the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee's joint aviation, highway and rail focus, that committee could turn vision into reality by packaging aviation, highway and rail projects into a single authorization, encouraging the Senate as a fellow traveler, and sending to the dust bin of history individual-mode funding that currently fails to consider passenger transportation as multimodal.

Those focusing solely on Amtrak funding ignore that its annual federal subsidy—notwithstanding record-breaking ridership for which it cannot sufficiently meet demand—is declining in real-dollar costs. So long as Congress treats separately aviation, highway and passenger and commuter-train funding, there is scant likelihood that Amtrak funding will be increased significantly. Former Amtrak President Graham Claytor's 1991 aspiration for the Am-penny—one-cent set aside within the Highway Trust Fund for Amtrak that would generate more than $1 billion annually, or more than Amtrak currently receives from Congress—remains unmet.

Combining the Aviation and Highway trust funds into a single passenger-transportation account, supplemented by general fund revenue and state contributions, cannot occur without a new multimodal focus in Congress where commercial aviation and highway transportation is considered jointly with intercity passenger and regional ("commuter") trains.

Yes, airline-ticket and highway-fuels taxes will have to increase, and more general funding from Congress and states will have to be provided. Capturing the imagination of American taxpayers with a new vision that jointly delivers, by mid-century, an end to unacceptable aviation and highway gridlock and insufficient train seats may be the most effective means of winning support for multimodal transportation funding and the higher taxes to fund it. Vision transforms the impossible to the improbable, while technology transforms the improbable into reality.

What is certain is that perpetuating the status quo is incapable of meeting effective future passenger-transportation solutions in the Northeast and elsewhere.

(Frank N. Wilner is author of "Amtrak: Past, Present, Future," available at www.transalert.com.)


Frank N. Wilner

Frank N. Wilner is author of six books, including, Amtrak: Past, Present, Future; Understanding the Railway Labor Act; and, Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and labor relations from Virginia Tech. He has been assistant vice president, policy, for the Association of American Railroads; a White House appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board; and director of public relations for the United Transportation Union. He is a past president of the Association of Transportation Law Professionals.