Thursday, October 03, 2013

The "public" in rail public transportation

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Do the U.S. rail transit industry, Amtrak, and advocates of rail public transportation have a stake in the current Washington crisis over the federal budget and government shutdown? A stake in the looming crisis over threats to force a default on the federal national debt? Or is this mainly a fight over the Affordable Care Act with little relevance to other issues?

U.S. CapitolI'd strongly argue that this is a conflict over far more than healthcare — and it goes straight to the core of what sustains America's most crucial urban and intercity public transportation systems. And yes, even air and motor coach travel.

Behind all the smoke and noise, what I see is a confrontation over the role, indeed, the very legitimacy of the public sector — in particular, government programs such as those that support urban mass transportation and Amtrak. Implicitly too — government subsidies that are essential to motor coach and air transportation.

First, it's critical to understand that today's public transport — certainly, in any consistent, comprehensive, efficient form — would simply collapse without government support. I'll bypass extremists' fantasies of a nation of private tollways instead of freeways and public streets, and privately owned and operated airways systems and airports ... and just leap to the basic issue of rail transit and Amtrak, forced to compete with these other modes with just a small fraction of the gusher of public support their competitors receive.

But that relatively slender trickle of support has been a lifesaver, in effect making it possible for a dying privately owned and operated urban mass transit industry, and rail passenger service, to raise themselves up from their own ashes — as public transportation (i.e., public sector transportation).

There are a number of excellent analyses of how this happened; one of my favorites is Stephen B. Goddard's authoritative work Getting There. Another I've found more recently is a 1989 report by Elliott D. Sclar, K. H. Schaeffer, and Robert Brandwein titled The Emperor's New Clothes: Transit Privatization and Public Policy.

In a succinctly germane summary, Sclar, Schaeffer, and Brandwein follow federal transportation policy as it poured money into roadway development, promoted the shift to automobile dependency, and nurtured sprawling suburbanization. In combination with other burdens placed on the once-widespread surface electric railway systems, the result was to decimate public transport.

In response to mass transit decline, federal policy eventually began to change, especially with the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. By then, say these authors,

it was clear that most of the nation's privately operated urban transport systems were in serious trouble. Badly undercapitalized, they were barely able to remain in business, let alone serve as the organizational vehicle for the transit expansion that was urgently needed. Based on the long history of local public operating subsidy that these systems began receiving as early as the second decade of the [20th] century, it was anticipated that this new public mandate would by and large be carried forward through direct public provision of service.

That cautious beginning has evolved into the Federal Transit Administration and a stream of government support that, while less than the vast river of funding accorded to other modes, has been a substantial lifeline. The outcome has been the spectacular resurgence of mass transportation, particularly rail — rapid transit, regional passenger rail, light rail, streetcars — over the past half-century. The mileage of tracks and power lines has been extended, new rolling stock has proliferated, ridership has reversed its decline and soared.

Similar dynamics led to the creation of Amtrak in 1970, thus ensuring the continuation of intercity rail passenger service. Which underscores my major point: Public transportation is a public service, and public funding is crucial to its existence.

And that gets us back to the current battle in Washington over ... the existence of a functioning federal government. It's been thoroughly documented that an influential faction within one of the major political parties has been dedicated to a federal shutdown since well before the 2010 elections. The very idea of government services is hated.

Within this faction and its base of adherents, calls to "Shut 'er down!" are wildly cheered. News reports have described these legislators as "giddy", "gleeful", "ecstatic" in recent days, smiling happily over the prospect of a government shutdown.

But it's important to understand what pulling the plug on public transportation funding would mean, if it happens. This is not just an ideological debate over philosophies and fantasies.

The "public" in public transportation is the energy source that keeps it alive.

Lyndon Henry

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, investigative journalist, and transportation consultant currently based in Central Texas. He holds a Master of Science in Community & Regional Planning, with a focus in Transportation, from the University of Texas at Austin, 1981. From 1973 to 1989 he was executive director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, and presented the original proposals and feasibility studies for light rail that led to the inclusion of rail transit in the Austin-area planning process.. From 1981 to 1985 he served as a transportation consultant to the Hajj Research Centre at King Abdul Aziz University, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a transportation planning consultant on several other transit projects in the USA. In 1983-84 he was a member of the Austin-Travis County Transit Task Force which recommended a transit authority for the Austin area. That agency, eventually named Capital Metro, was created in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, Mr. Henry served as a board member and vice-chairman of Capital Metro. From 1990 to 1992 he was an Adjunct Faculty member at St. Edwards University, teaching a course in public policy. Since 2000 he has served as a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and from 2002 to late 2011 he served as a Data Analyst for Capital Metro in Austin. He is also a member of APTA’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee and Light Rail Transit Technical Subcommittee.