Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Standing Up to Powerful Interests" is exactly what we are doing with High-Speed Rail

You know that old saying, that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail?  Well, to me, many arguments look like support for a case opposing high-speed rail.

Here's an article from the United States Public Interest Research Group, a very liberal, pro-high-speed rail organization.  However, the author, Tony Dutzik, makes a compelling case that we are driving less; that is to say, fewer of us are driving and we are not driving as far as we used to.  That should mitigate the HSR argument about reducing traffic congestion and burning fossil fuels.  Which is to say that we are doing that already, and will be doing more as we electrify our automobiles.

(The US and California PIRG have as their slogan, "Standing Up to Powerful Interests." That should include HSR.) 

Tony cites our new digital world and telecommunication as one of the reasons for this car decline.  Coincidentally, that's also one of the reasons that we need high-speed rail less and less, if indeed we ever needed it, which I doubt.  That is, we are travelling less by car, and therefore presumably more by air for longer distances as we are travelling less over shorter distances. Which means, in the US, there is no niche to fill with high-speed rail. 

When Dutzik asks:  Why then is Washington arguing about how much to spend building our grandfather's transportation network?  I immediately think of railroads and high-speed rail in particular.  Is rail an 18th/19th C. modality that is qualitatively improved by speeding it up. Is faster always better?  It's a more complicated question than it seems. One answer is, it all depends.  (If we could breed horses that can run 200 mph, should we go back to riding horses the way we did in the 19th century? That's absurd!)

The author construes this driving decline as justification for building fewer new highways. Perhaps. 

However, this driving-less argument is no case for not repairing, maintaining and improving the infrastructure that we already have, including highways, roadways, and runways, not to mention railways, both for freight (which I enthusiastically support) and Amtrak/passenger rail service, especially local commuter service.

And when the author also argues that we need more and better choices for transit, I'm going to assume that he means within the growing urban environment, or even the regional demography of suburbs, bedroom communities, and new satellite towns. Yes, there should be more choices for how to get around.

But, none of this is a case favoring high-speed rail; to the contrary.  As Dutzik points out, new highway funds, and for me, the vast amounts of necessary HSR funds could be spent better elsewhere.

Tony Dutzik
Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group


In the Public Interest: Americans Are Driving Less. Washington Should Pay Attention.
Posted: 9/14/11 01:44 PM ET

A few years ago, a strange thing happened: Americans started driving less.

How strange was it? For 60 years, up until 2005, the number of miles driven on America's roads increased by an average of 3.7 percent per year - that's more than twice as fast as population growth. Today, however, Americans are driving just about as much as we did six years ago overall. And on a per-capita basis, as researchers from the Brookings Institution have pointed out, the number of miles driven actually peaked a decade ago.

As President Obama and Congress debate infrastructure investments - both as part of the president's jobs strategy and the ongoing debate over reauthorization of the transportation bill - it is important to know whether the trend away from ever-increasing amounts of driving is real or a temporary blip. If the trend is real, it would suggest that our transportation policies - the broad outlines of which were established when "Leave It to Beaver" was on TV and America still produced most of its own oil - need a serious rewrite for the 21st century.

What do we know? First, we know that driving has fallen fastest among young Americans - precisely the people who will be most impacted by today's transportation infrastructure choices. According to the National Household Travel Survey, the average number of miles driven by licensed drivers aged 20 to 34 fell by 12 percent between the recession year of 2001 and 2009. Meanwhile, the percentage of 19-year-olds with a driver's license has plummeted from 92 percent in 1978 to 77 percent in 2008.
Some cultural observers suggest that these trends are part of a larger generational shift - one in which digital connectivity trumps horsepower, and iPads and Androids take the place of an earlier generation's '57 Chevys as symbols of consumer aspiration and freedom.

Other factors are at work as well. The easy mortgage credit that once financed the construction of McMansions in auto-oriented exurbs is gone. Consumer tastes in housing are shifting toward walkable neighborhoods in proximity to urban amenities. A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Land Institute projects that "24-hour neighborhoods in cities and urbanizing suburban nodes [will] become more desirable locations," while "fringe suburban subdivisions [will] lose some appeal."
The giant Baby Boom generation is now moving into retirement - a period in life when driving typically decreases. Gasoline prices aren't going down any time soon. And more Americans continue to look for opportunities to walk or bike where they need to go - both to save money and to enjoy better health.

Temporary factors, such as the recession and spikes in gasoline prices, have certainly played a role in the reduction in driving. But an accumulation of evidence suggests that - at minimum - the days of rapid, steady growth in vehicle travel are over.

Why then is Washington arguing about how much to spend building our grandfather's transportation network? The main question shouldn't be whether we spend too much or too little on those programs. Instead, we should ask why we continue to spend vast sums on building new highway capacity - especially when there are far more productive ways to invest that money.

Fixing our existing roads, bridges and transit infrastructure is a good place to start. Yet, federal and state policies often serve to incentivize the construction of new highway capacity over the less-glamorous task of taking care of what we have.

At the same time, Americans are hungering for more and better transportation choices. Cities and states have proposals for new transit lines, passenger rail service, bike lanes and sidewalks that are stuck on the drawing board for lack of funds. And if the objective is job creation, there is really no contest: a recent report by Smart Growth America found that public transportation projects funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created 70 percent more jobs per dollar than highway projects funded under the law.

America's transportation needs and desires are changing. If the president and Congress want to get the most out of our transportation investments, they must discard outmoded assumptions and make decisions based on the real needs of Americans in the 21st century.

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