HITCHHIKERS INDEED!

April 16, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

A U. S. Senator recently said monies set aside from the Highway Trust Fund for cyclists and pedestrians are funding “hitchhikers,” those unwanted fellow travelers sucking up resources that could best be applied to, well, highways. Those “hitchhikers,” or provisions for cyclists, walkers and other poor souls who opt to employ their feet to get to work, shopping, and recreation are, in this Senator’s mind, siphoning off critical funds that could be building more highways, more lanes, more interchanges and so on. In this Senator’s mind, only traveling by automobile (or truck) qualifies as true “transportation” in this country.

Sidewalks and bike paths are also infrastructure. Most conservatives recognize that infrastructure is in the federal interest. This is not a conservative versus liberal issue (or shouldn’t be); it is a vital national issue that national leaders have always embraced to insure the continued economic growth and prosperity in this country. Since Congressional action funding lighthouses and authorizing construction of the National (“Cumberland”) Road in 1806 (and federal infrastructure spending confirmed as constitutional by a Supreme Court decision in 1824), the federal government has been in the business of supporting transportation infrastructure. Need I point out the massive federal investments in interstate highways, airports (and air traffic control systems) across the country or investments in transit systems, ports and railroads over the years?

As we burrow further into the 21st century, it is becoming obvious to most observers that mobility in this country means developing a wide range of alternatives to accommodate all the trips we make each day. This means we cannot afford to treat bicycle riders or pedestrians as unwanted “hitchhikers.” Cities such as Denver and Boulder, CO; Portland and Eugene, OR; Washington, DC; and now New York City, to name just a few, have growing systems of bike only lanes and facilities to accommodate (and, yes, encourage) travel by bicycle. Greater attention is being paid to the pedestrian (and pedestrian safety) in many cities. There is a growing realization that wide, multi-lane arterials make crossing those streets a hazardous, sometimes life-threatening act. While current legislation describes provisions for cyclists, pedestrians and the like as “enhancements,” we need to adopt a name that signifies a broader focus that includes non-motorized travel as an important component of our transportation network. Action by the US DOT in March of last year to put these “enhancements” on equal footing with highways is a good first start (with predictable pushback from state DOT’s). Walking and biking can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and improve our health to boot!

The current national debate on reducing the federal deficit and returning our country to fiscal good health requires shared sacrifice. On that I think most of us can agree. Sparking a food fight by pitting various transportation groups against each other will be counterproductive. The funds available for transportation improvements in this country are going to shrink. In fact, that is already happening. It is therefore imperative that we arrive at a formula that shares the pain but preserves each transportation alternative a place at the table. Some deserving projects are not going to be built. However, attempting to exclude certain options to insure a greater share for one particular participant will only magnify the inequities that still permeate too many of our transportation policies. The future health of our transportation infrastructure is too critical to allow parochial interests to overwhelm a balanced approach to infrastructure renewal in a time of austerity.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

A Test for Florida’s Governor

April 13, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

Florida Governor Rick Scott’s rejection of $2.4 billion for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando can be debated. Was it an ideological decision or was it based on facts? Facts did at least raise questions about the line, especially the fact that it was short. Why would people take a train for less than 90 miles when they would need a car when they reached Orlando or Tampa, given both cities’ lack of streetcars and light rail? Had the line run all the way to Miami the case for it would have been much stronger. That was “in the plan,” but had no date, no numbers and no source of money.

But now Governor Scott faces a clearer test. A passenger rail project that makes sense is up for decision.

The project in question is connecting Jacksonville to Miami along the Florida East Coast railway. Trains on this line would serve all the key tourist destinations along Florida’s east coast – – which is to say the state’s prime real estate. The track is already in excellent shape, and the trains could operate from the onset at 90 miles per hour, easily sufficient to compete with the automobile. Put simply, this is a no-brainer, an opportunity to give Florida and the tourists who visit the sunshine state top quality rail passenger service at modest costs.

What is the cost? The Winter 2011 issue of Rail magazine reports that

The Florida Department of Transportation has provided an $118 million investment . . . An estimated $268 million is needed to launch the route, and the state anticipates attracting federal support to complement their state-level investment.

Rail also reports a ridership estimate of 865,000 trips annually, which given the rise in gas prices is probably low.

So, Governor Scott, will it be facts or mindless ideology, ideology that says government-built highways are the “free market” solution to all mobility issues? With gas heading for $5 per gallon (or maybe $25 if the Mideast’s current disorder spreads to Saudi Arabia), will you spend a modest sum to give Floridians an alternative to driving that would be fast, frequent, comfortable and safe? Or will Florida, like Ohio, take as its motto “Drive or Die?”

Watch this one closely. If Governor Scott kills this train too, it will be wise for conservatives (as distinguished from libertarians) to find a new candidate for governor the next time around.

Send a Message by Billboard

April 6, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

With the price of gas rising and events in the Middle East suggesting we may soon face a gasoline supply crisis like those of 1973 and 1979 (keep your eye on Saudi Arabia, the world’s central bank of oil), wouldn’t it be nice if we could rub the noses of the “conservative” governors who have killed passenger train projects in their states in the mess they’ve made?

Here’s the idea. What if drivers coming into Columbus, Ohio on I-71, a corridor that would have had passenger rail service, saw a big billboard reading, “Can’t afford gas? Thank Governor Kasich that you won’t have a train to ride instead of driving.”

Similar billboards in Wisconsin and Florida would also be nice. Our Center for Public Transportation would be happy to put our name on them. All we need is the money to do it. If anyone cares to contribute the cash, we’re ready to roll. Or, other organizations at the state level can pick up the idea; we won’t object.

One way to change politicians’ behavior is to make them pay a political price for it. If gas hits $5 a gallon, a whole lot of people will be looking for alternatives to driving. And, they’ll be mad. If we connect that anger to the governors who have taken the best alternative away from them, the train, you will watch those governors squirm. Wouldn’t that be fun? Let’s make it happen.