Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Brookings Institute Report on Passenger Rail

For the last few months, the Spalding County branch of Georgians for Passenger Rail has been raising money to pay for a report by the Brookings Institute on the feasibility of a passenger rail line from Atlanta to Macon.

Here's the full PDF of the report, which is posted on the state organization's web-site:

Looks really interesting, and if it takes a lot of cars off the road (primarily people who work in only one place the entire day--if I wanted to do this, I'd need to live near a station and leave my car at the office most of the week, which would be difficult if I wanted to drive somewhere in the evening), it would do wonders for Atlanta's notorious traffic and (so I've heard) air pollution.  Plus it should reduce gas prices, if many cars are taken off the road.

One issue people who don't support passenger rail have raised is what to do transport-wise when one gets to the city.  In Atlanta, this could be less problematic due to the presence of MARTA rail lines to other places (if I took the train to something in Atlanta, I would probably use this) as well as the bus system. 

However, I am not aware of there being similarly-convenient public transportaton options in some of the other cities along the line.  Macon and Clayton County look to have a respectable bus system, but it seems Henry County (site of the Hampton station) and Spalding County (site of the Griffin station) only have on-call bus service, not a regular bus system in the mode of Athens (whose bus service I sometimes used when a student at UGA).

One praise for the report--clearly whoever wrote it has read How To Win Friends and Influence People.  He acknowledges the usefulness of the car-centric 20th Century mode of development rather than mindlessly attacking it, but said that this needs to be updated for the 21st Century.

Thing is, between capital costs from 2016 to 2018 (construction) and maintenace/operations from 2018 to 2030, it's going to come out to $725 million.  That's quite a pretty penny there.  There's a federal earmark for rail on the Southside that the state has held for several years, but it's not going to cover all or even most of that (IIRC it was around $37 million).

Paying for that is going to be tricky, especially since the majority of public-transit does not pay for itself at the fare-box (if I recall correctly, for example, the only profitable AMTRAK line is one of the ones up north).  This means the project will have to be subsidized by taxes.  The goal is that economic development brought about by the rail line--people moving to areas served by the rail so they can take the train to work, for example, increased travel to Atlanta due to reduced traffic issues, money that would have been spent on gas elsewhere, etc--will provide the increased tax revenues needed to get the project going without it burdening the taxpayers.

However, the report does suggest that conservative estimates of local revenue could pay for a significant--$400+ million--chunk of this project.  Other sources of revenue include public-private partnerships, for example.  If the train has got a fair number of passengers, this could mean advertising and businesses setting up there, much like how the Atlanta airport has got all kinds of restaurants and the like there.  The TSPLOST I mentioned in my blog earlier, if it passes in 2012, could be used to provide funds as well, although the report acknowledges that the cities where the stations will go are in different tax jurisdictions and this will require an intergovernmental agreement on spending the tax monies.

Now for the ideological issue.  It may seem odd for me, a Libertarian and/or conservative (I tend to view Libertarianism as a type of conservatism, a view not universally shared), to profess support for this project, which is in effect a very large tax-funded program. 

However, I think that as far as the constitutionality of the project is concerned, it's up there with the Interstate Highway system.  Transportation infrastructure has historically been something the government has done.  The Atlanta airport is public, for example, even though it is used by private airlines and has a significant number of private vendors.

In fact, this project on even sounder constitutional footing than the Interstate system, since it's a state project, with the feds only chipping in some funds and not doing it themselves.

I wonder if there's a Henry County chapter of Georgians for Passenger Rail I could join?  Convincing the more rural sectors of Metro Atlanta to support the project is going to be more difficult than convincing Atlantans, I imagine.

1 comment:

  1. Two quips about profitability, something that always comes up with public transportation, one, people always bring up that profitability issue with public transit (as in buses and rail lines of all types.) i'll make my counter point that our massive system of roads really doesn't make a profit either. (the Federal gas tax, the prime funding for roads in this country hasn't been raised since 1993) So thus, it's really hard for buses and trains to break even when roads are so heavily subsidized, directly, (through user fees) or indirectly (through zoning and land development patterns dictated by the government that favor suburban sprawl. My second revolves around state Departments of Transportation throughout the country, which despite their neutral sounding name are more often or not, fronts for the construction of new roads on the federal governments bill at the cost of everything else that they're supposed to do (such as regular maintenance on those new roads).

    Oh well, sorry about the rant, Public Transit is one where I'm, REALLY passionate, but alas, I'm incoherent when it comes to arguing stuff online, I'd recommend sites like Sreetsblog, The Transport Politic, The Overhead Wire, and Human Transit, they (along with several others I don't pay much attention to.) could probably argue the point I'm trying to make more successfully.

    But anyways, at least the Atlanta area has some significant plans here in the Bay Area, all we have are a few very badly conceived suburban extensions of BART that keep getting delayed, a horribly overpriced Light Rail subway in Downtown San Francisco (In excess of the 500 million$ per mile range.) and a few shitty BRT lines stuck in eternal planning because of the bitching of a few people.

    But second to lastly, it's kind of odd that transportation is America's last true socialist institution where providing the service (even if it's shitty) is still more important than the profit motive.

    And last of all, in an earlier post about transit, (February 26th, to be exact.) you wondered if endorsing a government supported mass transit plan made you a Keynesian? I say no. Why? These atricles:

    And remember libertarian policy built Manhattan, the Government built it's suburbs, and i'd Manhattan over our suburbs any day.