A Soul-Crushing Vision for American Commuters

by Sean Jeans-Gail, Rail Passengers

I had the opportunity to speak at a meeting held by All Aboard Arizona this weekend, updating them on the work Rail Passengers is doing to prepare for next years’ surface transportation reauthorization in Congress. It’s a tough subject matter to give a presentation on, frankly—dense with policy jargon, discussions of the structure of federal agencies and programs, and scores of acronyms. But it’s an important topic to educate advocates on, because this piece of legislation will provide the tools to achieve the vision for the kind of passenger rail system we’re trying to build in America.

Which brings me to a related problem: with limited time to discuss the policy solutions needed to build a better rail system, there’s very little time to discuss what precisely this better rail system should include. Fortunately, the other speakers on the schedule did a wonderful job of describing a positive, forward looking vision. I was joined by Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Amtrak’s public relations manager Marc Magliari,Rail PassengersBoard Member George Chilson, and Arizona State Senator Steve Farley, who all offered compelling examples of what a 21stCentury American passenger rail network should look like. Topics included the economic benefits that Amtrak service brings to Tucson; the need to develop a rail transit connection between Tucson and Phoenix, a corridor currently choked by car congestion; work Amtrak is doing to bring daily service to the Sunset Limited and Cardinal; and how increased frequencies would benefit cities and towns in the rapidly growing southwestern US.

As we prepare for the transportation reauthorization, it’s great to see that local officials are making ambitious plans for what comes next. The current transportation system is broken—in its funding structure and its underlying intent—and we must give these regional leaders new policy tools if they are to build a future-ready transportation system.

It was all the more disheartening, then, to come back to DC and see the Washington Posteditorial board advocate for Maryland’s expensive new roadbuilding plan:

WHEN GOV. Larry Hogan (R) last year proposed a $9 billion blueprint to widen the Beltway, Interstate 270 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway by building more than 100 miles of toll lanes — potentially one of the most audacious public-private partnerships in the nation — the project was attacked as politically opportunistic, a boondoggle that would wreck neighborhoods and harm the environment. Nonetheless, Mr. Hogan’s plan has advanced, impelled by one undeniable fact known to hundreds of thousands of daily commuters who crawl along those roadways day after soul-crushing day: Suburban traffic long ago outstripped highway capacity.

It will get much worse in the coming decades. The Washington region is expected to grow by 1.5 million people by 2045, to nearly 7 million. No matter how much new investment is poured into transit — we hope it’s a lot— demand for new roadways will soar. If you doubt that, think of Uber, Lyft and self-driving cars, and consider this: Car usage nationally is expanding at roughly twice the rate of population growth.

Here, we see the WaPo board clearly identifying a real problem—a hundred million Americans making the soul crushing commute to work, trapped for hours in their cars—and then presenting the following solution: bulldoze neighborhoods to make room for more highways.

This is a complete failure of imagination and ambition. The current funding model for highways was designed in the Eisenhower Administration to construct an interstate road network; that job is done. It is time to build something new.

And there are plansmany of them—that envision a better future than nudging along in a steel box for hours each day. If the old guard is unwilling to support these plans, they should step aside and let others do the work. As we think about creating a 21stCentury toolbox for transportation planners,Rail Passengersis committed to supporting the visionaries.

You can find more about our plan for the reauthorization at www.RailPassengers.org/2020.