Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fast Track to Waste

When was the last time you rode a train?

The last time for me was several Christmases ago, when my brother and eldest nephew, visiting from the frozen tundra of suburban Detroit, took me to a Dallas Stars hockey game. Hoping to save money on parking, and save time by avoiding traffic near downtown Dallas' American Airlines Center, we took the relatively-new Trinity Railway Express (TRE), a commuter train between the downtowns in Fort Worth and Dallas. And indeed, we saved quite a bit of money, because the ticket machines at both stations - going and coming - weren't working.

Recently, the local agency that runs the TRE proposed fair increases and service cuts - the conventional, if not self-defeating measures - to try and balance its budget. Oddly enough, somebody wrote an op-ed piece suggesting that the TRE simply fix its electronic ticket machines, which tells me a lot of people still probably ride free often. And the TRE wonders why it can't break even.

Granted, commuter rail gets hopper cars full of subsidies from the federal government, but then, so do Interstate highways and even Detroit's Big Three. In some ways, corporate America is as hooked on government hand-outs as right wing conservatives claim liberal Democrats are. But sometimes, the federal spending, particularly in an election year, gets too illogical to ignore.

Indeed, in a blatant effort to bolster the political standing of incumbent Democrats nationwide, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday announced what sounds like an aggressive program to relieve highway congestion from coast to coast. A laudable goal by anybody's standards, conservative or liberal. Right?

But listen how he plans on relieving that congested traffic. It's not on actual freeways, which would probably be a tolerable federal expenditure for conservatives. Ostensibly, LaHood will be spending $2.4 billion on projects intended to pave the way for cross-country high-speed passenger rail. Not just in the Northeast, which already boasts the marginally-successful Acela. But in parts of the country where it's simply not needed.

Railing Against Rail?

For example, New York State will get over $18 million to improve existing passenger rail stations in Syracuse and prepare for an eventual high-speed rail corridor between, of all places, Albany and Buffalo.

Never mind that the beak stretch from Albany, the moribund state capital of New York, to Buffalo, one of the most-maligned rust belt cities in North America, remains locked in an unprecedented population drain as high taxation and intransigent union labor continue to cripple Upstate's free-falling economy.

Texas and Oklahoma will be getting almost $6 million to study - STUDY - the feasibility of high-speed rail between either Dallas or Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, with the possibility of extending high-speed service south to San Antonio sometime in the future.

At least the DFW - OKC proposal sounds better in theory than the New York project, if only because people are still moving to Texas by the millions - many of them disenchanted or unemployed New Yorkers. Only one freeway links San Antonio to Oklahoma City - I-35 - and it's become one of the most loathed strips of pavement in the Southwest because it's congested almost all the time.

While we can all respect the impact railroads have had on the growth and development of the United States, and while passenger rail remains a vital component of transportation infrastructure in key areas of the country like the Boston - Washington, DC corridor, can high-speed passenger rail be applied across the country?

That Train has Left the Station

First, let's consider the $18 million slated for upstate New York. In their prime, the cities of Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were bustling, can-do champions of the Industrial Revolution. But within the past 40 years, manufacturing has virtually evaporated, nothing has replaced it, and tens of thousands of people have moved away from a region that was never densely populated anyway. Untold millions of dollars have already been spent trying to jump-start the upstate economy, but New York can't ween itself from high taxes and oppressive state regulations that simply render this region obsolete and uncompetitive.

As a native New Yorker who use to live on the north shore of Oneida Lake in suburban Syracuse, it pains me greatly to say it, but New York is a dying state. We are witnessing the quiet suffocation of one of the most beautiful and historic parts of our country. If it wasn't for New York City's surging population masking the state's overall population decline, the Empire State would be called the Expire State.

The need for passenger rail - let alone high-speed passenger rail - in upstate New York is absolutely, positively, 100% zero.

Nil. Zilch. Zip.

Especially at the billions of dollars it would take to actually lay track and buy the trains. And how can anybody claim high-speed rail would reinvigorate the economy? Are companies refusing to set up shop in Syracuse because no high-speed rail exists? Or are companies dying in Syracuse because of the state's appallingly hostile economic environment?

Sure, the city's famous university will have faculty and students who might use high-speed rail to escape central New York during breaks, but who else is there? The airport and multiple freeways - built when Syracuse was still a powerhouse - aren't being utilized to their full capacity anymore, so... the area needs more transportation options?

And speaking of Syracuse University, one of the best-respected research institutions in the world: what's keeping all of their highly-trained graduates from setting up high-tech firms around their alma mater? Many cities lust after schools like SU and the ripple effect they have on start-ups and hosting high-wage-earning creative people. Why isn't that happening in Syracuse? It's not because of the dreary weather, which would be understandable, although other places in North America have even worse climates. And it's not because Syracuse lacks high-speed passenger rail.

Red River Rivalry

Here in north Texas, the prospect of high-speed passenger rail might at least make sense when you consider our booming population dynamics. Nearly 6 million people live in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, and north of the Red River which slices between north Texas and Oklahoma, almost a million people live in and around their capital. Each of these three cities have been growing for years, and nothing points to that scenario changing - at least, not as long as states like New York continue taxing their residents to death.

But Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Fort Worth lack one key ingredient to successful high-speed rail service: comprehensive urban mass transit to service travelers once they arrive at their destination. Even if Oklahomans and Texans could be convinced to leave their cars at home and ride a fancy high-speed train, what do they do for transportation when they get off the train?

Sure, all three cities have basic bus systems. Here in what we call the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex, our TRE commuter train runs sporadically - and often for free! - and Dallas County has limited light rail service. But still, you need a car here to get from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.

The factor people like LaHood don't seem to understand involves population density. Sure, north Texas has six million folks, but we're sprawled across 8 counties. No city in the Lone Star State has been designed for high-density demographics that can flourish without private automobiles. Amtrak's Acela services the most densely populated region of the United States, but the cities it serves also have dynamic local mass transit systems to accommodate car-less travelers. Neither Texas nor Oklahoma compare in that regard.

You have to take reality into consideration when implementing transportation policy. Yet liberal tax-and-spend Democrats have simply shown their hand just a few days before an election that surely will wipe a lot of them out of office. I've listed only two examples where LaHood's $2.4 billion will be wasted. Only a fool would say there aren't any more. And the real kicker? It's not even LaHood's money to waste, is it? It's ours.

Not that Republicans don't waste enough money on their watch. But like in the old movies, the stationmaster is standing on the platform, but this watch is his trusty silver pocket watch. And the train is fixin' to leave the station. But not before a whole lotta tax-and-spenders climb on board as voters ride them outta town on the rails.

1 comment:

  1. My Dad has the same thing out in L.A. County as we have going on here. City wants to fund a trillion dollar high speed rail to Vegas. Too many tax and spend libs with too much money in their hands.


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