Monday, October 06, 2008

Funding for AmTrak!

Finally, things are looking a little up for AmTrak: the Senate has passed a 5-year, $13-bn funding package in a veto-proof margin. Now all it has to do is make it through the House and then the president's desk and AmTrak can be on the good track for getting out of debt, buying new locomotives, passenger cars, state-federal partnerships, etc.

The recent increases in ridership on the nation's rail system has also helped justify the continued existence of train travel, even in the eyes of those who think that such things are merely socialism in disguise. (Or at least seem to.) Speaking of those groups who tout the benefits of road travel over rail - like the Heritage Fund - the costs of rail are (true) subsidized by government. However, the costs of road travel are also subsidized by government (what are the Department of Transportation and the federal, state, and local highway systems all about anyway). If everyone had to pay tolls on those roads (as opposed to funding the DOT through the opaque mechanism of taxation), then more people might dislike road travel. Groups like the Heritage Foundation conveniently "forget" to mention this when doing their analyses or discount the costs significantly.

We have learned (sometimes painfully) that the answer for highway congestion is not just to build greater capacity (since greater capacity ultimately leads to increased demand in a seemingly never-ending positive-feedback loop). Increased capacity leads - among other things - to an ever-increasing reach of development outward from a city center, and so long as the development is road-centric, the necesity for owning (and therefore using) cars and roads increases. In some locations, the use of preferred tolls has eased traffic congestion for those who saw a marginal benefit for paying the toll. However, even this is a limited option, since if many people choose to pay the "express lane" toll, congestion even in those lanes will increase. (I'm guessing this will happen as gas prices continue to inexorably rise, while toll prices are likely to remain steady, meaning more people will see the utility of paying money to drive faster and waste less fuel being stuck in traffic.)

In other locations, cities have worked with state or federal transportation agencies to provide mass transit along pre-existing rights-of-way that exist as medians between the oncoming lanes of highway traffic. The use of these rights-of-way decreases the cost of rail projects, since no extra land is needed to be purchased, and maximizes utility of the rail project, since in many places communities were developed to be optimized to the highway system's installation. An additional benefit for this type of setup is that during peak rushour traffic, while individual motor vehicles are stuck in traffic, the commuter rail system calmly flies by, increasing the morale of those in the train, while demoralizing those stuck in their cars burning fuel and their patience.

I could also make a brief (unsubstantiated-by-data) argument that rail travel is much safer than road travel on a per-capita basis, thus proving to be less-costly than road travel on a social level. Even though the United States doesn't really have a nationalized health care system or a national vehicle insurance system, both of these privatized systems react to the relatively high rates of accidents caused by motor vehicles, raising the rates of insurance for everyone who is in a statistically equivalent situation (if the policy-holders are lucky) or across-the-board (if the policy-holders are not lucky). Therefore, the high per capita rates of accidents (motor vehicle insurance-related) and injury (medical insurance-related) associated with motor vehicle use are secondarily more expensive than rail travel. It only makes sense: trains (in optimal situations) are not likely to crash with anything that would cause significant damage to its passengers, since the momentum of a moving train is likely orders-of-magnitude greater than anything it might encounter normally on a train track. Furthermore, train tracks are not shared - in most cases - with other motor vehicles, thus minimizing any "driver errors" that one might encounter, while with road travel, the amount of "driver errors" one might encounter is orders of magnitude higher than the train situation, and the types of accidents encountered are less likely to be one-sided.

Finally, the opportunity cost of driving vs. taking a train are very different. While taking a train might take a little longer than driving during a commute (under ideal conditions), there are (likely) unmeasured benefits, such as the ability to focus on work on the train, not getting stressed due to traffic, the ability to walk about while commuting (unless the train is packed), etc. Although I might be considered a bit of a granola-cruncher for saying this, I think that such things are worth something in a monetary sense.

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