The Immediate Need For Greatly Improved Public Transportation


When I was a kid, I remember my father buying gasoline for twenty-five cents.  That was in the late 1950s.  Then, in 1967 and early 1968 I worked at a service station where I saw regular gasoline prices at thirty cents.  But that was when we imported less than 50% of  our oil.  In 1974 we saw that changed suddenly with the organization of OPEC.  Whatever people may think of OPEC, it was formed as a result of American and British oil companies in the middle east indubitably sharing their profits.  The main American company was called the Arab American Oil Company, or ARAMCO.  Justifiably the hosting nations took exception to the many decades of foreign oil interests in their countries.  Our import oil prices doubled which led to a quick increase at the pumps, from an average of 35 cents to 55 cents.  I remember rationing and long lines at the oil pumps.  The 24-hour service station temporarily ceased to exist in many places.  That meant traveling at night required a lot of planning when you were going long distances.  At the time I was traveling from Virginia to Massachusetts.

I do not see such things happening again in our immediate future but it is in our future.  There is no debate that it will happen, just when it will happen.  America’s foray into the world of alternative sources of portable energy have been slow, mostly because at present the demand for such vehicles is still small.  Also, Americans have adjusted to increasing oil prices rather smoothly and without a lot of complaint.  The American love affair with the automobile has yet to end but it has been altered slightly.  The old behemoths of the roadways are largely a thing of the past although relative gas economy really has not increased all that much.  Large and mid-sized American cars are still wont to get much over 22 miles to the gallon in urban operation, and not a whole lot more in highway driving.  For as much as automobile companies like Toyota and Honda boast about how economical their small car are, are they are, they still pale to known possibilities.  But the known possibilities, electric primarily, lack for power and are somewhat limited in their distances.  The problem is a simple one, once you leave your home with an electric automobile, the availability of a place to recharge you automobiles batteries are minimal.

That said, we have in place, somewhat, a public transportation system that can to some degree offset the use of automobiles.  Unfortunately, most of the public does not understand the basic necessities of building, operating, and support of a comprehensive public transportation system.   Simply put, Americans are spoiled by the Interstate highway system and lack confidence in the present public transportation system to fill their needs.  The lone except to this are their airlines.  Americans are very knowledgeable where airlines are concerned.

I read in the Boston Sunday Globe today that a plan for high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco is meeting with a high degree of opposition.  Cited as the reasons are the high price of building such a rail link and the link’s lack of service to many of California’s major cities.  It is obvious to me that the people have missed the most basic idea of the rail link, how to provide high-speed, in excess of 120 MPH, service between its two largest cities.  The planners knew that building such a link along the coast, which would link most of California’s major cities, would have been unreasonably costly.  But putting the line up the central valley and avoiding the coastal mountains, allowed a much lower price tag and a sure way to gain the high speeds necessary to make it a true high-speed rail link.

America trails the rest of the world in high-speed rail and other forms of public transportation.  It is understandable that people living between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River may not see the need for increased public transportation in their areas.  But the  people in the rest of the country absolutely need it and sooner than later.  Our day of gasoline reckoning is much closer than many want to admit but when it gets here unless we have made proper plans, we will be hurting for a long time.

Let me be clear on one point.  Public transportation systems almost without exception bring in less than 50 cents in revenue for every dollar spent.  Most public transportation systems have not covered their operating costs since the 1950s and some even before that.  That means tax dollars make up the difference.  We have to accept that for our future and learn how to properly fund our public transportation.  What every American has to understand that public transportation exists for the common good.  There is a trade-off regardless of what you support.  If you decease public transportation then you necessarily increase the use of private cars on our streets and highways.  Those are your only options.

All of our urban transportation systems were designed in the early 20th Century when most Americans lived in urban areas.  The mass production of the automobile shifted our population centers and created the suburbs.  In the early 1900s when you left the city you were almost immediately in the country.  That is no longer true.  If you look at the rail route from New York City to Philadelphia you find almost a continuous urban and suburban type of population.  In 1900, you left New York and Newark urban areas and went into the countryside until you reached the small city of Trenton.  Then back into the countryside until you reached Philadelphia.  There is virtually no countryside left along that stretch with the invention of the suburbs and their linking highways.  Even more, the now populous urban centers in Florida, Texas and California were virtually non-existent in 1900.  In the case of California, an extremely well planned and extensive public transportation system was virtually dismantled by 1960 and has cost the state billions of dollars to just start its recreation.

In the early 1990s U.S. transportation planners gathered and invited urban planners from Europe and Japan to help identify and plan a comprehensive U.S. system of public transportation.  All forms of public transportation were taken into consideration to include bicycles and pedestrians.  To put this all in perspective, the U.S. is roughly 3.7 million square miles and Europe is roughly 3.9 square miles in area but there is no comparison between the two in transportation.  While the U.S. has a vastly superior road system, it has a vastly inferior public transportation system.  To be fair, the population of Europe is more than double that of the U.S.  But that only excuses the U.S. relative to those areas west of the Mississippi.

Massachusetts has invested billions of dollars in its public transportation systems, primarily the MBTA which now carries more than $3 billion in debt.  The MBTA is threatening serious service cutbacks if the status-quo is maintained.  At the heart of the problem is an aging system, both in infrastructure and equipment.  Reductions in service only provide a disincentive to the public to use the system.  The MBTA, of course, is not the only system that is being forced into making such decisions.  People want a high level of public transportation but do not understand how much it costs to maintain such a system.  Large fare increases can only be offset but increased tax subsidies.  Such subsidies are generally collected at the gas pump in the form of state and federal taxes, and sometimes city taxes.  People in urban states wonder why their gasoline taxes are higher than the more rural states and this, along with road maintenance, is precisely why.

the AMTRACK system has been under attack almost since its inception.  It has been threatened with elimination numerous times if it did not cover its operating costs with its fares.  Such a suggestion is ludicrous.  It also goes against the basic premise of public transportation, a service for the public good.  Long distance AMTRACK service has been the most seriously attacked.  Such attacks are penny wise and pound foolish.

People need to understand that the standards used for freight service and passenger service are extremely different.  The standard for passenger service requires a certain type of rail be used and that the rail be at a particular condition as regards the speed of service allowed.  That is, while freight service at speeds between 40 and 60 MPH maximum are acceptable along a particular route, passenger service along that same route at such speeds is unacceptable and unsupportable.  The concerns for the right-of-way in determining the speed at which a passenger train can travel is the weight of the rail per foot, the age of the rail, the signaling available, the upkeep of the rail bed, and the straightness of the rail.  Freight trains can operate safely in lesser conditions.

Then there is the capital equipment needed.  A single six car train with a diesel-electric engine can cost close to $5 million or more depending on use.  They have a lifetime of about 20 years.  They must be maintained and maintenance costs for any particular piece of equipment necessarily goes up with age.  Again simply put, imagine yourself having to maintain a car you bought in 1992.  That is exactly what many transportation systems are having to do with the rail and bus equipment.  It defies logic except that funding for new equipment is not supplied.

I am putting this in terms of rail transportation because railroads are abandoning rail lines that are no longer profitable.  The thing is, some of these lines are extremely desirable in terms of inter-city and long distance passenger travel.  But once abandoned, these rights-of-way will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resurrect.   Not only that, the cost of bringing a line in disuse to a level where passenger service is viable is very expensive and that price will only increase as time goes on.  What I am saying is that even minimal service along many routes is desirable in the long-term.  Those long distance trains that ply rural states such as Montana and Wyoming may seem like a waste of funding but they are not.  There is a level of maintenance that is happening that when the need for these routes increases it will be no great problem to increase service along them.  That day will come.  It is not an “if” but a “when.”

There are three investments which need to be made now.  The first is in urban transportation, the second in inter-city transportation, and the third in long distance transportation.  The price tag will be in the many tens of billions of dollars per year but it is an investment that will yield large returns for all Americans.  Such investments will reduce the wear on our roads and highways.  It will decrease our need for imported oil.  It will guarantee us a via transportation system in an emergency.  It is a delayed gratification benefit which is always one of the best benefits anyone can experience.

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