The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot published a guest editorial on Sunday, March 20, by Glen Bottoms supporting an extension to the Hampton Roads region’s light rail line (The Tide) to the Virginia Beach Town Center. The editorial, which lays out the reasons why the extension should make sense to conservatives, can be found here: http://pilotonline.com/opinion/columnist/guest/glen-d-bottoms-light-rail-a-wise-choice-for-hampton/article_3d43a53c-5b5d-5170-bd46-41b92bd0363a.html
Bill Lind and Glen Bottoms have collaborated on a penetrating article printed in The American Conservative entitled Don’t Railroad Amtrak: Americans Love Trains. So Should Conservatives. Lind and Bottoms tender persuasive arguments detailing why Amtrak deserves the strong support of conservatives across America. It can be accessed at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/dont-railroad-amtrak/
Bill Lind and Glen Bottoms have penned an incisive article in the Texas Tribune urging Texas conservatives to support rail transit in the Lone Star State, including a private initiative to build high speed rail between Dallas and Houston. With expanding rail systems in Houston and Dallas, and a viable high speed rail initiative to connect Dallas and Houston making progress, Texas has the opportunity to demonstrate the transforming power of rail passenger transportation. Lind and Bottoms also describe the high speed rail project as a real game-changer with enormous potential. The article, entitled The Conservative Case for Public Transportation can be viewed at http://tribtalk.org/2015/07/19/the-conservative-case-for-more-rail-transit-in-texas/
Glen Bottoms has written a review of Benjamin Ross’ provocative book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. The review provides revealing insights into Mr. Ross’ research and oftentimes unconventional but firmly supported conclusions. The review was published in The American Conservative and can be read at: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-to-reclaim-suburban-sprawl/
The book was published by the Oxford University Press and is available at local bookstores or through Amazon.
An article appeared in The New York Times on Saturday, January 2, 2016, entitled “In Atlanta, a Ride Many Scorn Is No Longer Free.” That title says it all and obviously requires no imagination to guess how the Times feels about Atlanta’s initial streetcar line. The sole motivation for the article appears to be the fact that people will now actually begin paying to ride the streetcar. While the streetcar just completed a year’s operation, the Times appears keenly disappointed with these first twelve months. The Times reaches the conclusion that the streetcar will have minimal impact in solving the traffic woes of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Really? The Atlanta Streetcar is a downtown circulator, that is, it is completely oriented to improving mobility and enhancing development prospects in the downtown area and, not incidentally, represents the first small segment of a much larger system that will tie together Atlanta’s central core.
Not mentioned in the article is a major catalyst for the streetcar system, the Belt project, a far-reaching initiative that will create a circular band of parks, trails, housing (affordable and otherwise) and, yes, a streetcar line circumnavigating a necklace of abandoned railroad rights of way around the city. The planned streetcar system will connect with this circular greenway at a number of locations. As with the streetcar, this has nothing to do with the commuters in the suburbs bound to their cars, trying to negotiate the Atlanta region’s epic traffic congestion created by maximum highway and minimal transit investment. This is about improving the quality of life in central Atlanta. Incidentally, the trail system buildout along the belt is already underway and the completed sections have become immensely popular.
The Times article slays the usual share of strawmen, quoting a spokesperson from a local libertarian think tank, who solemnly (and predictably) pronounces the project dead after the first year, saying
“They’re holding it [the streetcar] as the way of the future for the rest of Metro Atlanta, and heaven forbid we should follow the example of the City of Atlanta on the streetcar . . . We need to accept that this was a dismal failure . . .”
A libertarian think tank in Phoenix also made declarations of doom for that city’s light rail system before it opened. Not only is that system a roaring success, the city’s voters recently approved an increase in the sales tax to support a substantial expansion. That think tank has had little to say about the system since its initial predictions.
And how are other cities faring that have embraced the modern streetcar? Portland’s streetcar system, begun in 2001, is regarded as a success as is Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Less known but equally successful is Tacoma, WA’s streetcar line. Tucson, AZ’s streetcar opened in July, 2014 and has quickly become an indispensable part of the city, spawning development and spurring a renaissance in transit riding. Dallas has opened an initial streetcar line connecting the downtown to nearby Oak Cliff. Washington, DC finally opened in February 2016 and service, like Atlanta, is initially free of charge. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Detroit will open later in 2016. Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Fort Lauderdale will soon break ground for their own downtown streetcar circulators. The point is that plenty of cities are opting to adopt the streetcar to enhance mobility in the urban core while spurring and channeling development in targeted corridors.
Certainly, the jury is out on the Atlanta Streetcar. It’s only been open for a year, and this is hardly the time to draw hasty conclusions. While the experience gained from this initial segment will be helpful, especially regarding development along the line, the overall utility of this segment can only be accurately assessed after it becomes part of a growing system, benefitting from the connectivity and resulting cohesion that many expect to help transform downtown Atlanta.
Articles such as this one make pursuing a long term project all the more difficult, as the naysayers will use their platforms to make simplistic criticisms and employ ridicule to intimidate and ultimately defeat less committed decision-makers. I always look for opponents to proffer alternatives, but if they don’t, I know they simply want to preserve the status quo, and that is a time-honored recipe for stagnation and ultimately rot. Yes, Atlanta’s initial streetcar segment may well be in for a bumpy ride but the promise that a comprehensive streetcar system brings to downtown Atlanta will be well worth the journey.
Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
So, just why do we in America need Amtrak or an equivalent organization? All developed countries possess robust passenger train networks, some more modern than others. The economic benefits of dense intercity passenger rail networks have been clearly documented. The ability of business to maintain and expand contacts across the country is greatly enhanced by this connectivity (the effect has been documented in Europe and China). Connectivity also benefits ordinary citizens in countless ways. Amtrak contributes to expanded mobility, providing an affordable alternative to the automobile and airplane for travel between cities and from smaller communities to larger ones (and vice versa). A healthier Amtrak would provide more destinations and a higher frequency of service, along with competitive journey times, to successfully compete with the automobile and the airlines.
Amtrak serves many communities that have no other options. The airlines and intercity bus companies have been steadily reducing the number of cities and towns they serve, despite massive federal subsidies funneled to the airlines to serve smaller communities. The retrenchment of intercity bus service has resulted in entire states being left without service.
It really is quite simple. The future will (must) be multimodal. Our over reliance on the automobile and, to a lesser extent, the airlines, for long distance travel is already resulting in chronically overcrowded highways and clogged airports. Relief must come from bolstering other modes of transportation or implementing policies that reduce the overall need for travel in the first place. Our current direction is unaffordable and our efforts to expand highways to relieve congestion has not worked (and likewise unaffordable).
Studying the past instructs us on how to approach the future (and avoid past mistakes). That is a constant conservative position. Losing sight of how we got to this point means we will blindly continue to choose the wrong policies. We once possessed a comprehensive intercity passenger rail system connecting all parts of the continental United States (to and between communities large and small) with frequent, efficient, and affordable service. This system was operated by private railroads and was profitable until the government began pouring funds into highway building and, later, underwriting the airline industry. As the highly regulated private railroad industry had to contend with government funded roads and subsidized airline travel, intercity passenger rail unsurprisingly began to wither (freight traffic suffered too until it was freed from strangling regulation). The Interstate Highway program and the cancellation of the mail carrying contracts by the Post Office Department were the final blows. The private railroad industry finally convinced Congress (and the Nixon Administration) in 1971 to gather all remaining passenger rail operations under a government corporation (RailPax, then Amtrak). Most expected, indeed assumed that intercity passenger rail would melt away quietly. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Instead, from 6 million passengers in 1971 to 30.9 million in 2014, Amtrak ridership has blossomed, especially since the mid-1990s.
It is no secret that the current institutional setup at the federal and state levels favoring the automobile (and the trucking industry) is antiquated and archaic and in desperate need of reform. Perhaps the short term funding of the federal transportation re-authorization bill wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Federal transportation programs desperately need updating and extensively reformed rather than mindlessly pumping additional revenue into programs that prioritize the wrong activities. The defenders of the status quo (the oil and automobile industries, the concrete/asphalt industry, the construction companies, trucking interests, etc.) want to protect the current system of funding and administering our transportation modes because it benefits them. It also perpetuates the inequities and distortions that bring us unwanted/unneeded infrastructure. Studies have documented that many state DOTs continue to invest the bulk of available funds into roadway expansion while shortchanging maintenance, even as traffic counts decline or remain flat on a per capita basis.
Yes, Amtrak is subsidized, the naysayers scream time and time again, as if that alone disqualifies Amtrak from having the right to exist. What they choose to ignore is that ALL modes of transport are subsidized in this country (that is, roads, transit, intercity passenger rail, airline travel, barge transportation, etc.). A recent Texas Transportation Institute study documented that no road in the state of Texas generates enough revenue from the gas tax to cover construction, operation and maintenance. With regard to subsidization, the federal expenditure for Amtrak amounts to about .03 percent of the 2014 federal budget, or about $1.4 billion. By contrast, Great Britain, a country with a population 1/5th the size of the United States, subsidizes its intercity passenger rail network to the tune of $6 billion plus annually.
Intercity passenger trains are one of the safest modes for travel in the United States. In fact, train travel is about ten times safer than driving. Here, too, providing a viable alternative to the automobile is good policy.
The Amtrak system operates 44 intercity passenger routes over a 21,000 mile network worked by 300 intercity and commuter trains. In addition, hundreds of daily commuter trains operate over a number of Amtrak routes, largely in the Northeast Corridor. Fifteen train routes are over 750 miles long and are classified as long distance. Twenty-nine routes are shorter and are labeled corridor services. Many of these corridor services are or will be fully funded by the states, as per the PRIIA of 2008 (and re-authorized in 2015). Otherwise they will be discontinued. Expect that battle to continue. The anti-Amtrak forces operate at the state level too.
Increased emphasis on intercity rail passenger rail will bring added incentive for and pressure on cities to improve and expand their own connecting transit systems to allow intercity rail passengers to easily reach their final destinations (“the last mile”). After all, the train station is the intermediate destination, not the final one.
The utility of Amtrak also has an important national defense component. When the commercial airline industry shut down in the aftermath of 9/11, Amtrak continued to operate its nationwide network without interruption, providing key mobility options to many desperate citizens in one of the nation’s darkest hours. Had the Department of Defense needed to move units on an emergency basis, Amtrak was available.
Finally, the attached chart clearly debunks the cry that many critics make, that is, “nobody rides it.” Au contraire, Amtrak trains are actually thriving. More and more Americans are voting with their feet (and wallets) on how they feel about Amtrak.
The mindless assault in the U.S. Congress on Amtrak smacks not only of ideological rigidity but also reflects the influence of those interests that do not want intercity passenger rail to succeed.
Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Washington, DC
AMTRAK CORRIDOR SERVICE STATISTICS (2014)
[Includes Services > 300,000 Annual Ridership]
|Route||Type||FY 96 [unless otherwise noted]||FY14||Percentage Increase in Ridership FY 14 over FY 96|
|Northeast Regional||NEC Spine||5,417,308||8,100,776||50%|
|Acela [*]||NEC Spine||2,473,921||3,545,306||43%|
|Pacific Surfliner||Short Distance||1,565,162||2,681,173||71%|
|Capitols [**]||Short Distance||456,769||1,419,134||211%|
|San Joaquins||Short Distance||567,390||1,188,228||109%|
|Lincoln (Chicago-St. Louis)||Short Distance||254,581||633,531||149%|
|Downeaster [***]||Short Distance||245,135||514,708||110%|
|Albany-Niagara Falls-Toronto||Short Distance||N/A||410,344||N/A|
|Shuttles (New Haven – Springfield)||Short Distance||329,125||370,895||13%|
|Washington-Newport News [****]||Short Distance||434,453||344,335||-21%|
|Illini &Saluki (Chicago-Carbondale)||Short Distance||84,915||315,963||272%|
|Ridership Totals: FY 1996 -2011||14,094,633||24,332,717||73%|
|[*] Full Year Acela Service in FY 2002|
|[**] Full Capitol Corridor Service initiated in Dec 1991|
|[***] Full Downeaster Service initiated in Dec 2002|
|[****] While ridership on the Wash-Newport News train dropped to 344,335 in FY 14, Amtrak and the state of Virginia inaugurated two new services: Wash-Richmond & Wash-Norfolk which carried a combined 342,974. All three services are now carrying 100,000 more annual passengers than the previous single Wash-Newport News service.|
|Amtrak Fiscal Year runs from Oct – Sep|
|Note: Chart only includes corridor services exceeding 300,000 passengers per year|
|Amtrak Total [Corridor Services > 300,000]||14,094,633||24,332,717|
|Amtrak Total Ridership||18,294,792||30,921,274|
|FY 96||FY 14||Percentage Increase in Ridership|
|State & Other Corridors (all services)||7,010,941||14,731,993||110%|
|Long Distance Trains||3,821,696||4,543,199||19%|
|This Chart Prepared by The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation|