In a Battle of Transit vs. Transit, the Loser Is …

The imperative for climate action, the growing transportation funding crisis, and the emerging uncertainty about future demand for automobile travel all suggest that we open a fundamental debate about the transportation future of this country.

Matt Yglesias had a piece in Vox last week laying out what he sees as the ”real” reasons why American passenger rail is often so bad. I am not entirely sure I buy the core of Yglesias’ argument. (I’d always thought that America’s trains were bad mainly because we let our rail system deteriorate for decades while we massively subsidized competing modes of transportation, then turned the desiccated husk of the passenger rail system over to a quasi-public entity that its founders very well thought might fail, put said entity on an erratic and miserly annual allowance that was constantly under threat of being withdrawn entirely, empowered special interests to help kill off viable proposals for true high-speed rail, and refused to take basic steps, like enforcing the federal law requiring priority be given to passenger trains on freight tracks, that might have allowed Amtrak to provide halfway reliable service. But I know it’s more complicated than that.)

The part of the article I want to take issue with, though, has little to do with passenger rail per se and more to do with how we talk about transportation issues in general.

Yglesias writes:

The real problem is that even among the set of people who are interested in the idea of a multibillion-dollar transportation infrastructure investment, intercity passenger rail just isn’t that compelling a priority. Even if you just restrict your attention to train lovers, it’s hard to make the case for intercity over regular urban transit.

The implication here is that investments in passenger rail necessarily compete with investments in urban transit. The idea that passenger rail might compete with other, heavily subsidized, less sustainable modes of transportation for attention and investment doesn’t even enter the discussion.

The pitting of one mode of transit versus another is common in transportation debates. If you want to really see fur fly, just get a couple of transit folks going on a debate about the merits of light rail versus bus rapid transit, or streetcars versus buses, or commuter rail service to rich suburbs versus basic bus service to poor urban neighborhoods.

Those debates are substantively important, and in an era of limited resources they are worth having. We cannot afford to waste time and money on investments that won’t yield solid returns or achieve important societal goals.

But they also come at a cost: a lost opportunity to draw a contrast between a vision of an efficient, sustainable transportation system – one that must include both improved urban transit and efficient, low-carbon intercity travel alternatives like passenger rail – and our current transportation policies and investment patterns, which prioritize neither.

This is a good place to re-run an updated version of the following chart, which depicts cumulative capital investment by all levels of government in various modes of transportation, based on data from the Congressional Budget Office. Over the last 60 years, in the mythical battle between rail and urban transit for public investment, both have been losing badly – rail to aviation, transit to highways.

Figure: Cumulative Federal, State and Local Capital Expenditures on Transportation (data: CBO. Note: some state and local rail expenditures are included in “mass transit” line)

If we are ever going to change the conversation about transportation in the United States, we need to stop framing the debate primarily as being between one form of transit versus another. Instead, we need to frame it as a debate between a vision of sustainable transportation that includes multiple modes versus the current policy reality that brings us billion-dollar highway bypasses in rural Ohio, absurd highway widening projects through the heart of Detroit, high-priced Lexus lanes without a prayer of being paid off by those who use them, and countless other pointless highway boondoggles – all of which commit us further to a future of automobile dependence and high levels of global warming pollution. Compared to these “multibillion-dollar transportation infrastructure investments,” passenger rail is quite compelling indeed!

The conversation about our transportation future is one Americans are increasingly willing to have. As we documented in our recent report, Who Pays for Roads?, polling continually suggests that Americans believe we should give a higher priority to transit and other non-driving modes of transportation as opposed to highway expansion. Two thirds of Americans (PDF) actually support dedicating a share of their gas taxes to public transportation – something that currently occurs at the federal level but is illegal or unconstitutional in most states.

And that willingness to engage in a broader debate about transportation priorities emerges, I suspect, from an understanding of only one side of the story – the benefits of public transportation and walkable communities. Most Americans, I suspect, are unaware of the self-interest, black box witchcraft, bad underlying data, and simplistic assumptions involved in the making of the traffic forecasts used to justify the “need” for new and larger highways and more highway spending generally. Or of the continued and growing shift of the cost burden for highways away from those who drive and toward all taxpayers. Or of the repeated failure of costly highway expansion projects to fix the problems they were intended to solve. Or of the fiscal hangover that awaits us as we dedicate ever-growing shares of tomorrow’s gas tax revenue toward paying for yesterday’s and today’s highway projects and prepare to absorb the vast maintenance bill for all of the asphalt we have put down – and continue to put down – all across the country. Or of the fact that America’s transportation sector produces more greenhouse gas pollution than the entire economy of any other country on the planet besides China, India and Russia, and more such pollution per capita than the transportation system of almost any other industrialized country.

The imperative for climate action, the growing transportation funding crisis, and the emerging uncertainty about future demand for automobile travel all suggest that we open a fundamental debate about the transportation future of this country. And they demand that we devote as much attention and critical scrutiny to the transportation projects that currently consume the vast majority of public resources as we do to potential alternatives. Yglesias can’t be faulted for turning a critical eye toward the nation’s history with passenger rail. But we can all be faulted if we allow the conversation to stop there.




Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.