By M.E. Singer
As they say in Washington, “the chickens are coming home to roost.” The Administration has not issued any reasonable plan to conceptualize, let alone, how to pay for our much ignored, under-funded infrastructure; as Congress fights for its legitimacy to get anything done. It becomes abundantly clear the meaning of these revised messages; without any real hope for enhancing passenger rail services. Now, the public is beseeched to understand the obvious “walk-back” of how infrastructure was this integral component of the recent national campaign. Instead of deploying the initial vision of a multi-trillion dollar investment by private financiers, the Administration now claims how little potential there is for true P3. Indeed, as well, how the cities and states will have to “pony-up” real dollars to make infrastructure re-building actually happen. From Congress, we hear the vagueness of their intentions amidst any plan that identifies priorities.
However, we cannot ignore how the private interests have already financially maneuvered their positions through other bills in preparation for any legislation on infrastructure. Common sense increases in the gas tax, let alone VMT (Value Mile Tax) are scoffed at and dissed. Why does general aviation continue to enjoy the benefits of the FAA without having to pay for any of those public-supported services; to ensure it continues to be eliminated in any privatization of the FAA, which is only to the detriment of the public.? Why is their a continuous scorecard of how the FAA has reacted to the influx of private aviation to cities hosting Super Bowls by providing expanded FAA services gratis? Now, we find the inclusion in the new tax legislation to include relief from taxation for the management of private jets. Yet, at the same time, transit, commuter, and intercity rail continues to take a backseat to finding the true resolution to our unfulfilled needs for mobility, inter-regional connectivity, and creating the catalyst for economic development.
To paraphrase a comment from a politico, Pat Buchanan, perhaps it is time for the taxpayers to understand the threats against their infrastructure needs by their attention to ‘attack the castles (of the powers) with torches and pitchforks.’ As a consequence of the worst elements of crony capitalism, we find our infrastructure depicting a third world thanks to the influence of lobbyists peddling their one dimensional message to protect from taxation those living in their cul de sacs. This mantra has enveloped and steered Congress for the past thirty years; with the net impact of devolving investment in infrastructure. In actuality, to placate the lobbyists, Congress embraced a policy to dis-invest in our infrastructure. A caveat is that before we get consumed by the one dimensional corporate interests of Lyft, Uber, Amazon, Hyperloop, and Google, why don’t we take ownership and encourage Congress to function as it was intended to, minus the influence of lobbyists? But how can we remove the feedbags around the necks of Congress controlled by developers, financiers, and landowners?
In terms of infrastructure, for rail advocates it is imperative we must have a voice to actually prioritize the actual needs of our society. Specifically, the priority should be on enhancing mobility and economic development for the benefit of the public today; not to be overtaken and consumed by the parochial interests of today’s corporate barons. We do not need “pie in the sky” options, but rather, proven, common sense concepts. Let us not waste funds on infrastructure changes to accommodate autonomous vehicles; nor, commercial drones. If Hyperloop is such a perfect solution, rather than a mere Disney ride, than let it be built-and operate-without any public funding. If the electric car is so wonderful, than why is Tesla so heavily subsidized by California? Pathetically, Tesla still cannot meet its production promise; yet, already, Musk now promotes his electric truck.
For an answer to our current mobility issues; to see how economic development is achieved from its incremental improvements, we only need to turn to California, where intercity and commuter rail routes are being wisely expanded to inter-connect its regions. We only need to see that despite minimal funding, many of the former Pacific Electric interurban lines in LA are being re-built; to acknowledge the demands for increasing the Metro LRT lines has not abated; to appreciate how new commuter rail lines have evolved in North San Diego County (“Sprinter”) and the Sonoma region of San Francisco (“SMART”). California has learned how to tax itself to improve urban and regional transportation by discarding its total reliance on the automobile. As well, along the natural Pacific rail corridor, how the corridor between Seattle-Vancouver, BC is seriously studied to bring these cities in common closer together.
And for those who question the cost and routing of the California High Speed Rail program (HSR), they will see how the California congressional representatives who did the bidding of their landowning patrons to prevent the federal funding and insurance typical of supporting such transport projects will most likely be voted out of office in 2018. This HSR program is critical to link the Central Valley by finally linking the more prosperous northern and southern sections of the state; to bring the mobility key to the economic development potential of the Valley.
Critical to getting to the front of the line on infrastructure, we must understand, and accept, that approaching our infrastructure needs requires the vision to identify how to maximize investment to improve mobility, which leads to expanded economic development, is very much predicated on the role of our freight railroads. As this nation does not have the funds, land, or time to build new right-of-ways, we must learn to cooperatively work with the freight railroads, known in the industry as Class 1s. In essence, this means a common sense, mutually advantageous, economic approach–as we cannot impose our will upon the Class 1 freight operations and infrastructure to accept new or expanded commuter or intercity rail services. Acknowledging as passenger trains operate at different speeds, and require different signaling and grade crossing triggers; as well as the additional time for dispatching, the passenger service must be ready to pay for its way. This is best achieved by the Class 1 identifying its requirements (at a realistic cost) to interface its freight service with passenger operations, such as adding a third mainline track, expanding a bridge, enhancing a diamond crossing with another Class 1, etc.
As we already know from experience elsewhere, i.e., Japan and Hong Kong, but have failed to put into practice here, passenger rail depots and their right-of-way afford numerous investment opportunities for a P3 relationship with the Class 1 railroad, passenger operator, and local/state governments. Therefore, we cannot leave out of any infrastructure discussion how to include the freight railroads–to improve their own freight infrastructure, and to share it with growing passenger rail requirements. Rail advocates must accept the necessity to support infrastructure improvements for Class 1s as part of the overall game plan if we are to ever break out of the approach of spreading bread crumbs, a nickel and dime approach to passenger intercity rail. Doing so will give us a voice to prioritize how funds shall be spent in the context of national goals, e.g.,re: San Joaquin access to Sacramento; LA-Palm Springs commuter/intercity rail; completing CREATE program to relieve Chicago rail gridlock; South of the Lake program to relieve rail gridlock between NE Indiana-Chicago; double track South Shore Line between Gary-Michoigan City; Gateway (Penn Station, Hudson tunnels, East tunnels, bridges); NEC; Gulf Coast Corridor; “Baby Builder” between Chicago-St. Paul et al.