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The Question of Intercity Rail Transportation

In the last several years there has been an upsurge in interest in intercity rail service as well as the intracity service just discussed. Increases in motor fuel costs in 2007 and 2008 were one factor. Highway congestion, noted in connection with smart growth, and concern about global warming were others, for intercity rail has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than either automobile or air transportation. Finally, there has been a demonstration effect. The American who rides on, say, France's TGV or Spain's AVE and experiences a smooth, quiet trip that leaves and arrives on schedule and cruises at 170 mph is likely to ask the simple question "why can't we do that here?"15

As a result of the increased interest, the 2009 economic stimulus bill contained some funding for intercity rail service and for studies of a number of possible major routes. There have been state initiatives as well, the most ambitious of which is California's Proposition 1A, which passed in November 2008. The California High-Speed Rail Authority quotes part of the proposition as follows:

To provide Californians a safe, convenient, affordable, and reliable alternative to driving and high gas prices; to provide good-paying jobs and improve California's economy while reducing air pollution, global warming greenhouse gases, and our dependence on foreign oil, shall $9.95 billion in bonds be issued to establish a clean, efficient high-speed train service linking Southern California, the Sacramento San Joaquin Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area, with at least 90 percent of bond funds spent for specific projects, with federal and private matching funds required, and all bond funds subject to independent audits?16

A bit of history about U.S. intercity passenger service is useful here. After about 1920 U.S. intercity rail ridership began to decline, largely as a result of competition from an increasing number of privately owned automobiles operating on a newly improved road network. After World War II the situation for intercity rail became even worse as automobile ownership steadily increased, the pattern of land use became more dispersed, and competition from the airlines grew for the longer intercity routes. What happened to intercity passenger rail was similar, albeit at a larger geographic scale, to what happened to intracity public transportation. Other attractive modes became available and the land-use pattern changed in a way that made the collection and distribution problem more and more difficult.

In May 1971, responding to the continuous deterioration of intercity rail passenger service, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation to promote passenger rail service. At present almost all intercity rail service in the United States is provided by the corporation, operating under the name AmTrak. AmTrak basically pays a number of railroads to provide service. Because most of the service is over the railroads' freight lines, the kind of very high-speed service that is found in Europe is not possible here.17 A European level of service would require a higher-quality roadbed and also separate tracks so that passenger service would not be interrupted by the needs of the railroads' most important business, namely freight transport. Altogether AmTrak provides service over about 21,000 route miles. Like transit, passenger rail cannot survive without subsidy. Currently, AmTrak receives $2.6 billion a year in federal assistance.

AmTrak is generally supported by environmentalists and those in the political center and left. It is tenaciously opposed by conservatives, who see it as a poor use of public funds and an unjustified government intrusion into what should be left to the marketplace.

From a planner's perspective the key factor here is concentration. To the extent that such rail transportation can be developed, it promotes more compact development by making central locations more valuable. As was noted in connection with transit, the land-use pattern that favors intercity rail and that intercity rail will, in turn, reinforce is exactly the opposite of the direction that land-use development has taken from the 1920s to the present time.

Whether intercity rail service will make the comeback that its proponents hope for remains to be seen. This writer has his doubts. Cost is one matter. The proposed California system—which would, if built as fully envisioned, provide high-quality service all the way from Sacramento in the north to the Los Angeles area in the south—is currently estimated at a construction cost of $45 billion, and if the experience with many other projects is a guide this figure is probably low.

At present, federal and state budget deficits have largely dried up the funding for intercity rail projects, at least for the near term, a matter discussed in more detail in Chapter 15. Another concern is the development of new automotive technologies, a matter on which a huge amount of money is now being spent. To a lesser degree, developments in aviation technology for shorter trips (for example, vertical take off and landing capability) now being used only in military aircraft may also be a factor. After all, one cannot think about how well an enterprise will do without thinking about what its competition might do.

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