Fast Track

A Rail Renaissance Moves Ahead, Despite Conservative Opposition

On a late summer weekend last year, more than 260,000 people celebrated the opening of the 18-mile Westside Line in Portland, Oregon. They got out of their cars, partied at the station stops, and waited for a chance to squeeze aboard the jam-packed train cars.

Trains are back. Fifty years after the U.S. tore up over 8,000 miles of urban trolley track, light rail, the modern-day equivalent of the tram car, is resurfacing on city streets. Political opposition still runs strong. And the money, despite $8.2 billion earmarked for light rail projects under the federal transportation bill (TEA-21), is scarce. But the proof is in the building. Light rail lines are under construction in Dallas, Denver, New York, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and San Jose. An extension of the light rail system in San Francisco is scheduled to open this year, and more than 20 light rail projects are currently in the planning or design phase.

“Everything old is new again,” says Barbara McCann, campaign manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project. “There’s an explosion in demand for these systems.” Light rail isn’t the only form of rail transportation making a comeback. Thirty years ago, both science fiction writers and civic visionaries predicted that the world would soon be zipping around on high-speed ground transportation. While Japan and Europe went on to invest in the Bullet and TGV trains, funding problems in the 1980s killed ambitious high-speed projects in Florida, California and Texas.

Courtesy of AmtrakPhoto courtesy of Amtrak

But this fall, Amtrak will launch the nation’s first high-speed train in the Northeast corridor, slicing two hours off the Boston-New York route. Florida was planning a 186-mile-per-hour Florida Overland Express supertrain that would have connected Miami, Orlando and Tampa, but it was canceled in one of the first official acts of Governor Jeb Bush. In partnership with Amtrak, Midwest transit authorities unveiled plans last January for a high-speed regional network centered in Chicago. Next year, California will vote on a gas tax referendum to fund a statewide high-speed rail corridor.

“There’s been a notable increase in recognition of high-speed rail,” says Anne Chettle, communications director at the High Speed Ground Transportation Association. “Now we just have to make sure the money is appropriated and goes where it’s supposed to.” Under TEA-21, $2 billion has been earmarked for high-speed rail. Congress has also designated six regions in the U.S. as high-speed corridors, which means they are eligible for federal funds to upgrade existing track and signals for high-speed travel.

A response to traffic congestion and air pollution, the new rail renaissance is part of a flourishing national movement to develop more livable neighborhoods and contain urban sprawl. Rail has done for this effort what Greyhound and city bus systems never could: Take a transportation alternative and link it to a larger vision of community.

“When you put down a rail, you have a spine of fixed transit,” says Chris Hagerbaumer, air and transportation director at the Oregon Environmental Council. “It’s less about ridership numbers than about building efficient neighborhoods, places where people can work, go to school and shop.” Train stations promote downtown development, says Hagerbaumer. “They should also be the modal center, where light and heavy rail, buses and other forms of transportation converge.”

Around the country, dozens of train stations are being renovated to do just that. By the year 2006, for example, the Seattle Amtrak station will house both heavy rail and light rail stations, as well as a stop on the city’s underground bus tunnel. And the trains themselves—both heavy and light—provide the sleekest form of public transportation around. Consider Amtrak’s newly minted Talgo trains, which feature “custom class” seating, movies, outlets for computers and gourmet dining. Train travel has the “luxury of first-class air travel and a social atmosphere lacking in the car,” said Washington state Department of Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison when the Amtrak Cascades, the railroad’s newest passenger train, debuted last December.

Rail advocates caution, however, that the battle has just begun. A political culture steeped in the logic of the automobile could still derail many projects slated for development. Libertarian groups are increasing their efforts to defeat light rail measures across the country, says G.B. Arrington, director of strategic planning at the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District in Oregon. Only a month after the jubilant celebration of the Westside light rail, for example, voters in Portland rejected a $475 million bond measure to extend the line north and south.
The Cascade Policy Institute, a local conservative think tank with ties to the Cato Institute, played a significant role in the opposition. The right-wing think tanks are motivated by an inherent antagonism towards public transportation. “They start with the truth and then stretch it like taffy and turn it into something else,” says Arrington.

Heavy rail, with higher upfront costs than light, is an even tougher sell. The Florida Overland Express, for example, came under attack from Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Representative John Kasich, with the latter ordering a General Accounting Office investigation of the $5 billion dollar line. Meanwhile, Congress plans to wean Amtrak from public subsidy by the year 2002. This will place Amtrak’s fate squarely in the hands of the individual states, few of which have demonstrated any willingness to support the nation’s passenger railroad.

“The biggest problem is that we do everything on an incremental basis because people don’t want to invest the money,” says Hagerbaumer. “Would Federal Express have succeeded if they said, ‘First we’ll serve New York, then Boston, then California’? No. They had to provide service everywhere from day one.”

But whatever the roadblocks, it is unlikely they will stop the momentum building behind both light and heavy trains. Communities around the country are realizing that pouring $28 billion a year into the highway industry is not the answer to gridlock, poor air quality and other environmental problems associated with the automobile. Meanwhile, new federal initiatives, such as the Clinton Administration’s “Smart Growth” proposal, confirm that rail in America is much more than a nostalgia trip. On the contrary, it’s headed for the fast track.