I just came back from our annual meeting
. Here are some of the things I've learned. Forgive my lack of attribution for these ideas, but they came from speakers like George Chilson, Marc Magliari, Anne Canby, Bob Bauman, James Coston, and Rick Harnish.
The Illinois Amtrak expansion has proven to be an unprecedented success. For most rail expansions, it takes a few years to generate ridership. Not here. Sometime this summer, ridership in Illinois is going to double
from where it was a year ago. From now on, it's conventional wisdom in passenger rail policy that if you increase frequencies on existing routes, you will increase ridership dramatically. And even better, you will decrease the per capita cost, because which service will double, costs will not (some of the infrastructure like stations, tracks, trainsets and some labor) stays constant.
Here are some more statistics: since the new service started, we've sold 150,000 more tickets (and thus 150,000 more passengers) in the four and a half months of the new service than the tickets sold during the same period last year. That's a lot of people. People want trains.
The National Highway Trust Fund is out of money and out of ideas.
We ought to rename the National Highway Trust Fund the National Transportation Fund and allow any mode of travel -- highways, local roads, mass transit, intercity passenger rail, airports, waterways, bike lanes -- to access the same pot of money based on their ability to deliver mobility. We should also tie transportation investments into reducing emissions and not into either vehicle miles traveled (current policy) or simply enriching the road builders (sometimes current policy). I wonder how much we subsidize business, particularly Wal-Mart, by making just-in-time delivery possible. It would be nice to know. I don't think that's a bad thing, as that's another way of saying we're investing in infrastructure to make our nation more economically competitive (low prices are a very good thing), but it would help to rationalize who should get taxed in order to finance the infrastructure investment.
I'd like to apply the concept of dynamic scoring for tax policy (if we cut this type of tax , it will generate more income and thus more tax revenue, so the theory goes), long a crusade of the high incomes (best articulated by the Wall Street Journal editorial page) to transportation policy. For example: if we invest one dollar into a transit system or Amtrak, most of that money goes to labor costs to pay for the bus driver or train conductor or ticket agent. And those wages get taxed, which goes back to the government, and keeping that person employed means he or she buys things, which sends tax money back to the government. So the government 'spends' a dollar on transit or Amtrak and 'receives' back 30 cents or whatever in taxes.
For every dollar we spend on a road or highway maintenance, we hire the contractor to do the work, which sends some money back, and then we encourage a lot of driving, which basically means drivers spend a lot of money on oil and cars. And any money we spend on oil gets sent overseas to enrich the other wide of the War on Terror, certainly not back to the government. You'd have to think that the government gets a better return on spending dollars on transit or Amtrak instead of roads or highways, since the latter causes so much more money to get spent on foreign oil than the former, but I'd like data on the question.
There are more tham 40,000 people who die on the highways every year. That's a huge cost, financially and emotionally. Apparently, the policy goal in Europe is zero highway fatalities. Our federal policy goal on highway facilities is unclear, but probably something like a 10% reduction. I'd have to bet the benefits to reducing highway fatalities by spending more on transit and Amtrak would outweigh the costs of that extra spending. I'd like our transportation policy to include that calculation somehow.
What's the point of diner cars, sleeper cars and other unique attributes of overnight trains? The point is to sell tickets on trains, because the ability to buy a drink while you're traveling 100 miles or to leave a city at night and arrive in another city in the morning, well-rested and ready for work or fun, is a unique benefit that trains have over driving or flying. (Well, I guess you can buy a drink on a plane, but strapped into that coach seat isn't the same as strolling around on a train). So, we shouldn't try to strip out those benefits of a train -- we should include the cost of those benefits in a train ticket. Not every part of a train or a plane or a highway should be a profit center. Saying that a diner car should be a profit center is like saying that a toilet should be a profit center. Or air conditioning. The service should be provided as efficiently as possible, but it doesn't make sense to eliminate the unique benefit of train travel because it isn't by itself a profit center. We should just sell more tickets.
How many Americans just will not fly? It's probably something like a third to a half of the population. It's at least a quarter. That's at least 75 million people who have to subsidize our aviation system that will never use it. We should make a bigger deal about that. And we should find out what that number actually is.
This debate is getting more and more interesting, especially as SAFETY-LU (current federal transportation policy) expires in 2009. Oil prices will probably be over $100 a barrel by then. It's time for new voices and new policies.