Is America ready to support Rail?

While listening to a talk radio show this morning I heard the host (Neil Boortz) complain about the new streetcar Atlanta just received Federal funding for to the tune of $47 million dollars.  His biggest complaint was that nobody wants to travel on the route that the streetcar is proposed for (which I have to say I somewhat agree with him on).  But this got me thinking about the future of rail transportation in the U.S.  We talk a lot on here about electric vehicles, but we've spent little time focusing on another, possibly more sustainable mode of transportation: rail services.

Along with complaining about the Atlanta trolley, Neil (whose show I have called in on when the "Drill Baby Drill" campaign was going on to inform the listeners that even if we started drilling today, oil prices wouldn't be affected for 10 years, and at that point it would probably be by about 5 cents - this according to a Congressional report) also mentioned how  the Amtrak Acela high speed rail train between Washington, D.C. and New York was losing money, although that appears not to be the case.  In fact, according to this article on high-speed rail that appeared in 2009 on CNN, Acela is actually profitable, even though Amtrak as a whole is not.

And so I was going to approach this post from the question: "If a high-speed rail route doesn't make a profit, should it exist?"  But then I realized that this is the wrong point of view (even though Neil would certainly disagree with me).  Why is this the wrong point of view?  Because how much profit does the road you take on the ride home from work generate?  Why should one transit infrastructure (asphalt) be seen by the public as perfectly acceptable to accept tax money, while another form of transit infrastructure (rail) have to make a profit to deem it acceptable?

It helped that I also just read this interview on with William Lind who is the director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation (it's a little odd I can't find a website for said organization).  I suggest checking out the article though to see his controversial views on race and transit (where I may not necessarily agree with him, but can understand his feelings after riding Atlanta's rail system - Marta - and not feeling too safe myself).  Below are a few paragraphs that some up Lind's view and I put in bold the points that I think are extremely important to the argument:

The fundamental reason conservatives should support public transportation is because traditionally we've been strong on national security. The country's single greatest national security vulnerability is our dependence on imported oil. For at least half of the American population, that dependence is complete; that is to say only half of the population has any public transit available at all. The first conservative virtue, as Russell Kirk argued, is prudence. It strikes us as wildly imprudent to make our mobility hostage to events in unstable parts of the world.

The second [reason] is that there is a myth that has grown out of the libertarian camp -- libertarians and conservatives are often confused, but in fact they're very different -- that somehow public transportation is subsidized and highways are not. Well, that's nonsense. The latest Federal Highway Administration statistics show that user fees, including the gas tax, only cover 58 percent of the direct costs of highways. That's not even looking at the vast indirect costs. And many rail -- not bus, but rail -- public transit systems are able to cover 50 percent and more of their expenses out of the fare box. Of course they're all built with government money, mostly federal, more federal in the highways than transit. Highways get 80 percent federal; normally transit only gets 50 percent. So the picture that many conservatives have that it's a matter of free enterprise versus subsidy couldn't be more wrong.

And then..

Finally, conservatives have seen in city after city -- Portland, Ore., is only one of many examples -- how light rail and streetcars boost property values. In fact, the closer you are to a rail station, the higher your property value. The closer you are to a highway interchange, the lower your property value. We've seen relatively small investments -- less than $100 million in the case of Portland's initial streetcar line -- bring a couple billion dollars in development.

So [it is to us] a bizarre notion that we hear from so many Republican candidates and officeholders, that says public transportation, particularly rail, is somehow left-wing, and if you're a conservative you want highways. These are not ideological issues. They're technical issues, and they need to be dealt with as such.

Here's another interview with Lind that appeared on

Let's recap these points:

  • Rail reduces dependence on foreign oil
  • Roads are subsidized by tax money, why do conservatives think it is "a crime" for rail, another form of transportation, to receive tax money?
  • Proximity to light rail raises property values

I haven't even mentioned other benefits of rail over roads - cleaner air from less auto emissions, less time wasted in traffic (you can at least read on a train), happier people (if the alternative to riding rail is sitting in traffic).  I love taking trains and metros.  In fact, I do it all the time.....when I'm overseas.  My wife and I just went to Spain and we road the Metro from the airport to our hotel in Madrid, all over Madrid, the high-speed rail from Madrid to Barcelona, the Metro all over Barcelona, and then a bus to the airport.  And yes, I know the majority of the U.S. is more spread out than European countries, but surely there are many cities and rail corridors where rail could exist in the same justifications that it exists in Europe?

But hey, this is just meant to be an intro to rail transportation in the U.S.  What are we missing?  Do you support increasing spending on improving the U.S.'s rail system?

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I wanted to point out that Bill Lind's The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation has a website up and running now at We have and will be adding features to the website, commenting on the relevant issues on public transportation, especially rail transit, from a conservative perspective! Glen Bottoms Executive Director The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
When I travel to northern Virginia, we always choose to take the Metro from Alexandria into Washington, DC for sightseeing. The primary driver for doing this isn't sustainability but, instead, the convenience of being dropped off right by the Smithsonian and other sights without trying to find parking and having to deal with the traffic. I think, in the short term, having rail in cities and then raising the CAFE standards to 40mpg and introducing EVs will go a long way to helping reduce our dependene on petroleum.
I agree with your summary points. For many, the freedom of an independently controlled vehicle (ICV) trumps sustainability. While they may support the concept of sustainable mass transit, they will prefer their ICV unless overriding circumstances (time, distance, route, cost) dictate otherwise.

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