Friday, March 13, 2009

From the Editor: Is it pork, or is it bringing home the bacon?

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

March 2009 

Economists tell us that to pull the economy out of recession, we need to start spending big dollars on all sorts of projects. That’s what President Obama’s stimulus package is designed to do, and there’s a considerable sum of money allocated for rail programs, passenger and freight (though freight will have to rely largely upon the desire of state or local entities to flex about $27 billion worth of “highway” funds to rail, which would be a smart move).

billvweb.jpgPeople like to pin labels on things. As expected, even before the President’s signature on the stimulus bill dried, the labels began piling up. Many in Washington were quick to pin Capitol Hill’s favorite four-letter word—pork—on something they didn’t like.

Translation: They’ll scoff at projects that receive money they feel should go elsewhere—depending upon whether “elsewhere” is in their state or Congressional district.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. After all, aren’t Congressmen and Senators doing their jobs when they bring money and job opportunities to their constituents? Isn’t that what we elect them to do? Or should there be a greater good, a broader benefit, in mind?

When is a project pork, and when is it bringing home the bacon? Put another way, when is a project worthwhile, and when is it not?

Perhaps it’s time to stop pinning tags on projects and start looking at them for what they’re worth. This is highly subjective, but within the context of what this country really needs in terms of transportation, and what we should spend our scarce resources on, the choices (as far as Railway Age is concerned) are pretty clear-cut.

High speed rail is one of the best examples. In almost the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from $0 to $8 billion, plus another $5 billion over five years, if the President’s Fiscal Year 2010 budget request goes through unscathed. This is good news, but let’s be realistic: In terms of dedicated high speed (i.e., TGV, ICE), $13 billion won’t go very far. California’s planned high speed system will cost nearly four times that. It will be worth every penny, but who’s going to pay for a full buildout?

On the other hand, $13 billion will go a long way toward creating “higher-speed rail”: upgrading existing freight rail corridors to accommodate 110-125 mph passenger services. Among the requirements are broadly spaced multiple-track main lines, grade crossing closures, and Positive Train Control. The freight railroads most likely will support such projects, if they’re to their benefit. They’ll also be willing to contribute their own capital, to pay for that portion of a project that’s of direct benefit to them.

Also, higher-speed rail is much less expensive than “true” high speed, and upgrades can be done relatively fast (no pun intended).

In any case, let’s do what we can to make sure that high speed funding is not frittered away on maglev. The French, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and others have been doing quite well with steel-wheel technology. Maglev may be an impressive (though not entirely proven) technology, but for our purposes, it’s a waste of time and money, thank you very much. And who needs maglev when a TGV can tear down the rails at well over 300 mph? How fast is fast enough?

So, do we upgrade what we have, or build something newer and faster? What do we really need? It may be a tough choice to make, but given this country’s track record with high speed rail, it’s a nice problem to have.

Railway Age on Capitol Hill

On Feb. 26, over 300 rail industry representatives took part in more than 250 meetings with members of Congress and their staffs during the annual “Railroad Day on the Hill” event in Washington, D.C.

Publisher Bob DeMarco, Associate Publisher George Sokulski, and I took part in discussions on infrastructure tax credits and railroad re-regulation, among other issues. Re-regulation is of grave concern, and that’s why we arrived on Capitol Hill armed with copies of Railway Age’s February issue, which deals directly with this threat to our industry’s health and growth.

We distributed 700 copies of our February issue to Railroad Day on the Hill participants as leave-behind informational/educational pieces. Several days before, we mailed 300 to members of Congress with direct responsibility for rail transportation, and their key staff members.

Our hope is that the February issue of Railway Age, like our landmark 1957 “Outrage” issue, plays a role in educating and influencing members of Congress to do what’s best for the rail industry and its future. Too much is at stake, for both freight and passenger rail, to turn back the clock to the days before The Staggers Act freed our industry from the shackles of excessive, burdensome regulation.