Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tom Downs: What our highway culture really costs

Written by 
Tom Downs, chairman of the North American Board of Veolia Transportation and a former president of Amtrak, has written an opinion piece on high speed rail and its value titled “Driving on to Irrelevance: That Or a 21st Century Train System,” for Citiwire.net, which describes its mission as “to chronicle struggles and illuminate pathways to more vibrant, equitable, sustainable choices for grassroots America and citistates worldwide.” Railway Age reprints the opinion here:

tom_downs.jpg“There is an old saying that Americans will always do the right thing, but only after they have tried everything else first.

“Unfortunately, it’s hard to make the transition. Latest example: visceral opposition to high speed rail by those who should be thinking more innovatively. Consider Robert Samuelson’s recent column in the Washington Post—‘A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed.’ Samuelson cites the usual statistics—that we are an auto culture, that not enough people ride trains, that the costs are high. So, he concludes, President Obama’s commitment to high speed passenger rail is a fool’s errand.

“But Samuelson is among those who has been playing this song for over 20 years. Their message has turned into a weird anomaly given what is happening around the rest of the globe.

“First, let’s look at the true subsidy costs of a mono focus on highway investment. At least $100 billion of state, county, and city general funds are invested every year in highways and highway costs. Those are direct subsidies to the highway system, outside of any ‘user pay’ trust fund. The federal government has started to invest general funds into highways, in part because no one wants to actually have to pay for the costs of highways with an increase in user fees.

“Second, there are over two million Americans injured every year on America’s roads, at an annual medical cost of over $200 billion. Saving half of that cost would pay the entire cost of health care reform over the next decade.

“Third, the energy and environmental costs of our auto culture drive our defense and medical costs in ways that we have all agreed to turn a blind eye to—though the true cost is probably in the range of a half trillion dollars a year.

“If we can manage to ignore the $750 billion cost of our highway fixation, then Samuelson’s argument makes some kind of weird sense—though you have to suspend logic, economics, and global experience to get there.

“Why has every industrialized nation in the world made, and continues to make, large scale investments in high speed rail? That’s what Samuelson's argument can’t reach. If you look at the roll call of nations with high speed passenger rail, it includes Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, China, and South Korea. Could all of them be wrong? China alone is pursuing a 3,000-mile high speed network. What propels all of these industrial nations to invest so seriously in this mode of transportation? They are making hardheaded decisions about their nation’s future and their economic self-interest. We have just started to do so.

“In the U.S. House of Representative, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has marked up a reauthorization bill for highways and transit. The bill proposes to spend $550 billion over the next six years. The vast majority of those funds would go to the highway program. The bill would allocate $50 billion over the life of the bill for high-speed passenger rail. That's less than 10% of our national transportation funding. The Samuelsons of the world may call it a waste. I see a humongous greater waste—the $750 billion we’re incurring, year-in and year-out, in the indirect costs we incur by failing to build alternatives to our transportation monoculture. That’s the unconscionable economic waste.

“I am not suggesting that highways are going to be anything other than the dominant mode of transportation in the U.S. for a long time. I am suggesting that there are corridors, less than 500 miles long, where density and economic activity make high speed passenger rail the only viable mobility investment. The total trip time of air travel in those corridors, combined with the energy costs, makes high speed rail the logical choice and a far better choice than the costs of expanding highway capacity in those congested and dense corridors. For those trips, high speed rail delivers you to the heart of the city, not to a remote airport. I am also suggesting that there is simply no comparison between the safety of a train trip vs. the safety of an auto trip. In the end, we need a broader set of mobility choices than we have created for ourselves. The public seems to understand this, as editorial and public opinion polling is making clear.

“What is discouraging in this debate is that someone as bright as Samuelson cannot think in broader, more expansive terms about the American future. We can do better. Yes, we can!"