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On Transportation, Celebrate the Possible

This post was originally published on National Journal‘s Transportation Experts Blog.

You can read the full forum here.

Investment in the most beneficial intercity passenger rail projects can bring both short-term and long-term economic returns — construction and construction-related jobs right away and improved access to permanent jobs and greater labor market mobility in the long-term.

These returns were described in some detail in a report by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Martin Wachs, Strengthening Connections Between Transportation Investments and Economic Growth, released by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Transportation Policy Project in January 2011.

Certainly, the “right” intercity passenger rail projects woud fall into the category of transportation investments that could bring short- and long-term returns. However, the Obama Administration continues to struggle with the effects of having originally oversold the President’s “high-speed rail” initiative. The initial marketing of this program suggested that America should strive for a national system of bullet trains, like those of Japan, France, Spain, and China. It remains highly unlikely, however, that such a national system is achievable in any reasonable period of time, if ever. The environmental, social, and financial costs of constructing such services on new rights-of-way (ROWs) in the most densely populated and urbanized regions of the country, that is, in those areas in which there are markets for such services, would seem much too high, and the possibility of insurmountable community and local opposition appears much too likely.

However, incremental, and substantial, improvements to existing ROWs in urbanized regions — improvements that promise faster, more frequent, and more reliable intercity passenger rail services — can be undertaken and promise great benefits. Such investments could be undertaken rather quickly, producing construction jobs very soon. Indeed, plans for many of these projects have been discussed for many years and have waited only for adequate investment capital and for the adoption of new forms of governance and management to be initiated. Moreover, the “right” investments would occur where there are markets, thus minimizing the need for continuing large operating subsidies.

The successes of President Obama’s initiative (for example, the promise of improved passenger rail services between Detroit and Chicago, between Chicago and St. Louis, in the Pacific Northwest, and along the Northeast Corridor) are likely to come from such incremental improvements to existing ROWs and services. The funds invested in these projects derive from recent appropriations under both economic recovery and regular FRA programs. These investments make a great deal of sense, even in the context of the fiscal challenges facing the federal and many state governments. Indeed, those transportation investments that promise economic benefits and real returns are essential to the nation’s economic recovery and growth.

Unfortunately, the incremental improvements to existing rail lines and the successes that have been achieved under the current so-called “high-speed rail” program have been largely overlooked, in the context of a program that seemed to promise much more and that cannot realistically be pursued, in light of both extraordinary costs and constrained resources. Instead, let’s celebrate what we can achieve.

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2012-01-18 00:00:00

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