At least two big rail transit measures are on the ballot around the country this November, maybe more. In Seattle, voters will be asked to approve light-rail expansion. And in California, there's a truly transformative measure to build a high-speed rail network.
Both will probably fail, both due to the financial crisis but, sadly, also to the pervasive myths and muddled thinking that keep America frozen with an increasingly unworkable 1965 transportation network. This post will attempt to take a few of these on:
Myth #1: The problem can be solved by adding more buses.
Many people who claim to support transit advocate expanding bus service, saying buses are cheaper and more flexible. Unfortunately this is also the bait-and-switch position of anti-rail, anti-transit forces — they will initially support bus transit but then oppose actually funding it. In any event, while buses have their place, they are not enough for a balanced, multi-modal 21st century transportation system.
Buses get stuck in the same traffic congestion that snarls cars — and politicians will never create enough bus-only lanes to alleviate this. In downtown Seattle, a bus-rider's heaven, buses are routinely clotted up, even with bus lanes. Your bus is not only late, but it can be the fourth or fifth one back in a line stopped to take on passengers. Good luck getting there if you walk slowly. Buses with stairs are hard for many people to enter. And buses have a stigma in many communities. As I say, buses have a valuable place. But they can't replace rail for reliability, ease of entry, ease of riding, rider appeal, and passenger-miles-per-unit of energy.
Myth #2: Pave, baby, pave.
We've been adding more roads for years, and traffic congestion just keeps getting worse. Metro Phoenix is a laboratory example of this. But the phenomenon was first noted with the parkway construction and other car-based projects of Robert Moses in New York in the 1930s: These roadways actually become "congestion generators." Nevertheless, this is the American mindset. In supposedly "green" Washington state, the Republican candidate for governor promises to build and widen roads, and he's neck-in-neck in the race.
But the case against more roads goes deeper than the fact that wider freeways, etc., often just don't work. The automobile is a key factor behind metropolitan air pollution and global warming. Now it is going to be a victim of peak oil. Any replacement vehicles will be much more expensive than the internal combustion engine running on light sweet crude that was abundant in 1965, but will grow less so every year ahead. So we're going to need transportation alternatives.
Myth #3: Public transit is too costly.
The news media and the conservative "think tanks" obsess about the price tag of transit projects (an exception is this LA Times endorsement). They never talk about the real costs of freeways and roads — not just the nominal price of paving, etc., but the huge, embedded expenses associated with increased pollution, increased warming, loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl and the destabilization of neighborhoods and urban cores.
Highways actually don't pay for themselves. And there's not a transportation system in the world that isn't subsidized (look at our serial airline crises, and this with a host of hidden subsidies already). It just matters how a society sets its priorities. Thus, Europe has advanced bullet trains, intercity trains, light rail networks, subways — and China is building them. Several European city-pair routes have seen high-speed rail kill off the (more polluting) airline competition. Cost? These projects only get more expensive every time America refuses to build a system.
The more troubling aspect of this argument brings us back to the poisonous and decadent myth that has been foisted on the American people since 1981 that tax cuts are free, and they can get something for nothing. If previous generations had followed this bread-and-circuses illogic, we wouldn't even have a nation. Public works are the foundation of an advanced civilization, and "the free market" alone won't provide for the public good. Government intervention, starting with Abraham Lincoln, created the transcontinental railroad. It built the airline system, even as passenger railroads were taxed to death. It built the Interstate highway system. All this without a second peep about that extra dime or quarter from the average taxpayer. Now we face entirely new competitive and indeed civilizational survival realities, but "it costs too much."
Another aspect of cost that gets no attention is how well-funded (and well concealed) the opposition is. The sprawl, road-building, oil, and auto industries have been successfully defeating transit initiatives for decades. Conservative "think tanks" (i.e., advocacy groups grinding out fake research that always supports their position), also very lavishly funded, have a fetish against transit — something about the fear of maybe riding in the same rail car as a brown person. On the other hand, there is no big money, pro-transit lobby in this country.
(Seattle-specific) Myth #4: It's not perfect enough.
Seattle never misses a chance to miss a chance to build a great mass transit network — all the while bemoaning how far behind Portland it is. And no measure put before voters reaches the desired perfection — as if that happens anywhere.
Large public works usually have to make political and other compromises. That happens in democracies. The Tennessee Valley Authority could have been "better" — but it turned out pretty damned good. Now, the Sound Transit measure takes a long time to build out. Well, that's because backers are terrified of asking voters to approve more money to build it faster. At least it's a start.
Myth #5: People won't ride it.
Amtrak ridership is at records, and this with a vastly underfunded system. It was amazing watching the every-other-day train stop at 3 a.m. in Cincinnati — once a major passenger rail hub — and a crowd of people waiting to get on.
Imagine how it would work with a convenient and frequent set of trains on high-speed roadbed. Amtrak corridor service in such places as California, the Northeast, the Northwest, even Michigan, is doing especially well. Light-rail systems routinely break ridership projections. This is not 1965. America is denser, more urban, and many people are sick of driving. They long for alternatives.
So here we go again? Can we still build a 21st century civilization in the United States? Maybe a President Obama will start to turn things around. A President McCain promises to defund Amtrak, and that's just the start.
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