Rediscovering the Transportation Frontier: Improving Sustainability in the United States through Passenger Rail

Author:Benjamin J. Wickizer - Andrew Snow
Position:Does contract work on rail issues for the Environmental Law and Policy Center - Is a policy analyst for the Environmental Law and Policy Center's Ohio office
Pages:12-16
12FALL 2010
INTRODUCTION
Societal sus tainability is an increa sing concern in the
United States, especially the sustainability of urban envi-
ronments. Transportation is an essential element to con-
sider when assessing urban environmental impacts. How people
travel, both within and between urban areas, is fundamental to
any society’s environmental footprint . Sustain ability, a rela-
tively amorphous concept, has been defined as meeting society’s
present nee ds without compromis ing the ability of future gen -
erations to meet their needs.1
The degree of environ mental integrity charact eristic of
systems, policies, and infrastructures is fundam ental to urban
sustainability . Beyond this, the liv-
ability and hosp itability of urban
environ ments, often overlooked ,
are also crit ical. Sustai nability is
not limited to the realm of natu-
ral resources b ut can be examined
using an econo mic frame work.
Of p articular importan ce when
consi dering susta inabilit y from
an econ omic perspe ctive is the
inclusion of less tangible—often
difficult to measure—social ben-
efits, including the promotion of
improved quali ty of life, arisin g
from inve stments underta ken to
advance s ustainability. A di verse,
multi-modal transportation system
is cri tical for c reating sustainable
urban environments.
The U.S. transporta tion system was constructed princi-
pally around automobiles with internal combust ion engi nes.
The future role of the automobile, at least automobiles operat-
ing with conventional technology and relying upon fossil-fuels,
is uncertain due to incr easing gasoline prices ,2 concerns about
congestion and suburban sprawl,3 and impacts from pollution.4
Reliance on automobile use exact s a social cost in the form of
compromised environmental, health, and quality of life factors.5
This article discusses the need for diversification of the Unit ed
States transportation system. Specifically, it examines the poten-
tial benefits of expanding passenger rail service in urban corr i-
dors within the United States and the implications that this holds
for societal sustaina bility. It a lso br iefly co nsiders critiques
offered by opponents of rail and highlights the shortcomings of
these opinions.
RAIL HISTORY
During the lat e nineteenth and early twen tieth centur ies,
passenger rail traffic in the United States grew steadily; 1920
was the apex of passenger rail service, during which passenger
trains made over 1.2 billion passenger trips.6 Over the next two
decades, rail use fluctuated but followed an overall pattern of
decline as a result of increased car ownership and use.7 At the
end of the 1930s, however, rai l service wa s still an important
fixture of the transportation system.8 During the first half of the
1940s, i t played an important role in the wa r effort,9 but after
World War II, passenger rail service in the United States began a
steady and prolonged decline.10
The ulti mate ca use of rail ’s
decline may have been u nfavor-
able and one rous gov ernment
policies and discrepancies in trans-
portat ion spending tha t favored
road a nd air trave l over rail .11
Essentially, the deck was stacked
against th e rail system during the
latter part of the twentieth century
and could not compete financially
with the g overnment- supported
and heavily subsidized road and
air t rans porta tion sys tems .12
Despite the federal government’s
subsidization of Amtrak, not much
has changed since rail’s decline in
the 19 50s, and t he lack of public
financial support for passenger rail
still exist s and serves as a central
impediment to rail’s expansion. For instance, in 2003, the U.S.
rail indust ry received less than one pe rcent of the government
expenditure that U.S. highways received and less than five per-
cent of the government expen diture that the air travel industry
received.13
In th e 1960s, Lewis Mumford provided an early but pre-
scient critique of the growing highway system and its languish-
ing alternatives:
reDiScovering the tranSportation Frontier:
improving SuStainability in the uniteD StateS through paSSenger rail
by Benjamin J. Wickizer and Andrew Snow*
* Ben Wickizer does contract work on rail issues for the Environmental Law and
Policy Center, and Andrew Snow is a policy analyst for the Environmental Law
and Policy Center’s Ohio office. The opinions expressed in this paper are those
of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Environmental
Law and Policy Center.
How people travel,
both within and
between urban areas,
is fundamental
to any society’s
environmental
footprint
13 SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY
The fatal mistake we have been making is to sac rifice
every other form of transportation to the private motor-
car—and to offer as the only long-d istance alternative
the airplane. But the fact is that each type of transpor-
tation has its speci al use; and a good transporta tion
policy must seek to improve eac h type and make the
most of it . . . . There is no one ideal mode or speed:
human purpose should govern the choice of the means
of transpor tation. That is why we need a better tran s-
portation system, not just more highways.14
Mumford realized earlier t han most that having a multi-
modal transportation system was prudent, efficient, and pursuant
to the public good. Interestingly, it appears that in th e United
States more people are b eginning to share Mumford’s opinion
about the shortcomings of a transportat ion system so reliant
on the automob ile. Between 1995 and 2008, the growth rate of
public transit ridership has steadily increased at approximately
three times the U.S. populatio n growth rate while the growth
rate of national vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”) is beginning to
decline.15 An increasing number of people in the United States
are realizing the ben efits and value of pu blic trans it and the
importance of having alternatives to the automobile. Further-
more, motorists ages twenty-one to thirty now account for four-
teen perce nt of VMT, a seven percent reduction from this age
group’s mileag e in 1995.16 Thi s suggests that younger genera-
tions of Americans may not be as dependent on automobiles as
their predecessors.
BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESSFUL RAIL
Passenger rail has the potential to significantly improve our
transportation system and offer net benefits to society. However,
passenger rail is not suited f or all contexts. It has certain com-
parative adv antages, which should be heeded in transportation
development . The optimal location f or rail is wi thin densel y
populated corridors between major cities of approximately 100
to 300 miles distance.17 The corridor connecting New York City
to Washington DC, as well as intermediary cities including Bal-
timore and Philadelphia, fits the criteria for successful rail ser-
vice. It spans a distance of 225 miles and serves multiple large,
densely populated cities. This corridor has been very successful
for fostering rail growth and ridership, and in 2008, Amtrak cap-
tured sixty-th ree percent of t he combined air-rail market share
between New Y ork City and Washington, DC.18 Another loca-
tion that is well-suited for rail but is currently without service is
the 3-C (Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland) corridor in Ohio;
which, incid entally, is one of the most highly populated c orri-
dors in the United States that is not served by passenger rail.19
Optimally, rail is a component of a larger tra nsportation
network that should include buses, street cars, bike trails, walk-
able n eighborhoods, and car sharing. Such a system creat es a
variety of options for transportatio n users, enabling people to
select what mode or modes are most appropriate for a given trip.
The city of Portland, Orego n is one examp le of a city that has
benefited from a robust multi-modal system, which has spurred
transit oriented development and economic growth.20
In contrast, cr oss-country train routes have proven to be
less efficient and provide less return on investment than shorter
routes connecting populous cities.21 For instance, eighty percent
of Amtrak’s financial losses result from its cross-country routes,
despite the fact these routes account for only fifteen percent of
Amtrak ridership.22 Cross-country rail routes still provide social
benefits, but their economi c viability is considerably less than
shorter corridor routes.
TRENDS THAT SUPPORT RAIL INVESTMENT
In assessing the costs and benefits of passenger rail invest-
ment, it is important to consider not only how pass enger rail
functions today, b ut also how it could funct ion in the future.
Macro-societal trends su ggest that investment in rail is worth
serious consideration. The U.S. population is growing; demo-
graphic e stimates indicate the population wil l increase by 130
million people by 2050.23 A well- designed rail system could
help reduce road congestion, especially in highly populated cor-
ridors, mitigating the adverse impacts of congestion.24 Further,
a growing numb er of U.S. res idents desir e urban rather than
suburban living.25 Increasingly, especially within younger gen-
erations of Americans ,26 individuals want to live in walkable
urban environments with dive rse transport ation options . Pas-
senger rail, as well as li ght rail a nd street cars, help facilitate
this lifestyle choice. The trend of re-urbanization is presently in
its infancy but is likely to continue and grow in what has been
called the “fifth migration.”27
Another trend that favors rail investment is the rising price
of oil and gasoline.28 There is little doubt that in the long run oil,
and therefore gasoline, will becom e more costly as world sup-
plies diminish and extraction becomes increasingly expensive.29
Oil extraction will likely also become increasingly hazardous to
the environment as seen in the recent environmental disaster in
the Gulf of Mexico resulting from deep-water drilling30 and by
the heav y environmental toll from bitumi nous sand extra ction
and proce ssing.31 The increas ing price of gasoline will invari-
ably result in higher direct costs associated with aut omobile
travel and therefore an incr eased desire for less costly alterna-
tives. This shift in mode was eviden t during 2008 when gas
prices peaked at more than fo ur dollars per gallon and Amtrak
achieved r ecord levels of ridership.32 Expanded passenger rail
would address a growing desire for less costly alter natives to
automobile travel.
Further, our societ y’s re liance on r apid communication
and technology continues to gr ow. Any transportat ion mode
that allows users to access commun ication device s and com-
puter technology safely and reliably will be in demand because
it allows individuals to recover potentially lost w ork time dur-
ing travel. Rail passengers can safely use these technologies and
engage in more activities than other transportation modes allow.
Because of these aforementioned trends, rail may become more
appealing to travelers, although their importance in c reating
increased demand for rail is unclear. Nontheles s, these tr ends
are likely to continue to grow and support further investment in
passenger rail.
14FALL 2010
RETHINKING HOW THE MERITS OF RAIL
ARE ASSESSED
Allocating r esources for public projects presents a host of
challenges because it almost always requires making assump-
tions about future conditions. A fundamental question for invest-
ment in rail is: Relative to other potential investments aimed at
the same goal, is the potential return on investment for rail more
favorable than for inves tments in altern ative projects? Here is
where the concept of urban sustainability becomes cri tical. It
should be viewed as a legitimate goal of transportation planning,
but what metrics should be used to measure it? Rail critics argue
that pas senger rail will never be able to bear the same burden
as road or air travel, asserting that it is inadequate for address-
ing problems with our transportation system because of the lim-
ited numbers of riders that expanded rail would capture. These
critics point to reductions in VMT, which they assert would be
negligible, and use this as one of the litmus tests for whether or
not the U.S. should expand its passenger rail system.33 This is
a flawed approach fo r determining the benefits of rail and the
merits of further investment in it.34
This line of reasoning essentially postulates that passenger
rail is worthwhile on ly if it can significantly reduce the nega-
tive externalities from other transportation modes. There is evi-
dence that passenger rail does significan tly re duce V MT in
certain cases; for example, cities served by robust rail systems
have twe nty-one percent lower per capit a motor vehicle mile-
age (which represents an annual av erage re duction of 1,958
miles travel ed per person) than cities that are solely served by
buses—but this is not the fundamental question for assessing
rail.35 Rather, the question is: Is rai l’s projected net economic
benefit—including benefits arisin g from advanci ng urban sus-
tainability and from potential enhanced rider work productivity
owing to the use of person al computers and other de vices—
greater than that of a lternative proj ects? It is difficul t—some
would say perhaps impossible—to quantify all of the ma rginal
benefits and costs of different transportation investments. This
highly complex, c hallenging tas k is outside the scope of this
article; rather, its purpose is to identify and briefly examine criti-
cal factors that should be considered in as sessing the potential
value of passenger rail investment.
ENERGY AND AIR POLLUTION
Two ce ntral issues regarding the expansion of rail are its
effects on air pollution and the energy required to power trains.
Trains, both diesel and electric, require significantly less energy
per passenge r-mile than automobiles or airpla nes. In 2 008,
Amtrak train s burned 1,745 British thermal units (“BTU”) per
passenger-mile, while passenger cars burned 3,501, and domes-
tic air carrier planes bur ned 2,931 per passenge r-mile.36 This
implies that in terms of energy conservation, trains are approxi-
mately fi fty and forty percent more efficient than automobiles
and airplanes, respectively, as measured by the amount of energy
expended per passenger-m ile. This superior energy efficiency
results in more energy from fuel being converted to mechanical
energy, which translates into less fossil fuel dependence and use.
In 2004, passenger rail (including heavy, light, and commuter
rail) accounted for 25,822,000,000 passenger-miles traveled and
consumed 96 ,694,000 gallons of gasoline (or gasoline equiva-
lent),37 resulting in an average fuel consumption rate of 267
passenger-miles per gallon of gasoline. This means that using
one gallon of g asoline (or gas oline eq uivalent), the a verage
train moved its passengers a collective distance of 267 miles. In
contrast, in 2004, the aver age fuel efficiency for U.S. automo-
biles wa s twenty-two an d one-half mile s per gallon.38 If a car
has two occupants, at this fuel efficiency, its fu el consumption
rate would be forty-five passenger-miles per gallon of fuel. In
short, on a per passenger-mile basis, trains are significantly more
energy and fuel efficient than automobiles.
Trains are not only superior to automobiles and airplanes
based on energy and fuel efficiency, but also on emissions lev-
els and associated pollution. Trains emit sixty-six percent less
CO2 per passenger-mile than automobiles and fifty percent less
greenhouse gases than airplanes,39 as well as generally emitting
less crite ria pollutants.40 Ra il emission reducti ons also tend to
be concentrated in dense ly populated urban areas,41 some of
which are non-attainment area s for Clean Air Act regulati ons.
Reducing emissions in urban areas with high population den-
sities is particularly important because of d isproportionately
high health and economic costs from pollution. The Center for
Neighborhood Technology conducted a study to quant ify the
effects of current and proposed passeng er rails on greenhouse
gases in the future. It found that if rail plans are impleme nted
as prop osed, by 202 5 rail would result in twenty-nine mill ion
fewer automobile trips and 500,000 fewer flights, as well as an
annual abateme nt of six bill ion pounds of C O2 emissions.42 In
2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) restricted
the sulfur content allowed in diesel fuel for passenger trains.43
This standard will further reduce the environmental footprint of
passenger tra ins by decreasing particulate matter e missions by
ninety perce nt and nitrogen oxide emissions by eighty percent
when fully implemented, and make passenger trains more envi-
ronmentally responsible and sustainable.44
CONGESTION AND RELIABILITY
Rail has the potential t o improve urban sustainabili ty
through reducing congestion. Rail’s reduction of VMT results in
less congestion on the roads. For example, the Capitols, Pacific
Surfliner, and the San Joaquin rail corridors in California reduce
driving by a pproximately 500 millio n passenger -miles annu-
ally.45 A survey conducted among passengers on the Heartland
Flyer Train, which serves a 418 mile corridor from Oklahom a
City to Fort Worth, ind icated that approximat ely sixty percent
of passengers would have traveled by automobile had they not
taken the train.46 In addition, the Heartland Flyer reduces VMT
by 7.9 million miles annually.47 Such evidence demonstrates
that the majority of rail passengers are discretionary riders who
have alternative modes of transportation but who choose to uti-
lize the train, suggesting that rail inve stment is perhaps more
efficacious for reducing VMT than bus investment.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT LAW & POLICY15
Although critics argue rail does not remove enough indi -
viduals from roads to have a marked effect on congestion, this
is certainl y arguable as the above examples illustrate. Further,
congestion is non-linear and removing a sma ll number of cars
can have a disproportionate effect on congestion by eliminating
“bottlenecks” that result in traffic congestion and delays.48 Rail
also results in a positive externality for those that do continue to
drive by reducing congestion on roads and the costs and hazards
associated with it. The U.S. highway system is reaching its car-
rying capacity and will not be able to accommodate the nation’s
projected population gro wth over
the next 30 years.49
Investm ent in a bus system
could be thought to yield similar
or superior results to i nvestment
in rail, but this is n ot tru e. Rai l
is distinct from buses, because i t
capture s mor e di scretionary rid-
ers who other wise would likely
be driving cars, and thus invest-
ments in rail have a larger effect
on VMT reduction.50 Furthermore,
unlike rail, in creased bus service
has bee n linked wit h increased
conges tion costs to m otorists.51
However, an efficient bus system
is important for a successful rail
system because it extends access
to areas not served by th e rail . In
some respects, these two modes of transportation could best be
viewed as compliments rather than substitutes.
In spite of public per ception that train s are unreliable and
often late, rail is in fa ct mor e reli able t han ot her mod es of
transporta tion. In 2009, Amtrak trains were on time approxi -
mately eighty percent of the time.52 Trains are less susceptible
to inclement weather than a utomobiles or air planes, m aking
them particularly valuable in regions that experi ence violent or
unpredictable wea ther. Only thirteen perc ent of Amtrak delays
in 2009 were caused by ex ternal forces, such as we ather.53
Trains also are not subject to the same number of un certain
delays, such as accidents, of automobile trav el. Automobiles by
nature are su bject to more unforeseen delays than trains, and i t
is d ifficult to predict w hen and where automob ile congestio n
will occur.54 In 2007, automobile congestion nationwide caused
4.16 billion hours of del ays at a total cost of $87.2 billion , a
sixty-five pe rcent and sixty-one percent increase, respectively,
from 1997.55 These delays, inc identally, resulted in 2.8 billion
gallons of was ted fuel.56 Conversely, in 20 07, Amtrak trains
incurred only 101,655 hours of delays. 57 Because of their rela-
tively high degree of reli ability, trains allow individuals to plan
their travel more precisely than they otherwise could using other
transportat ion modes. Investment in roads generally do es not
yield si gnificant congestion reductions and can result in static
or increased congestion as a result of induced demand,58 while
the same investme nt in ra il could lead to reduced con gestion
because of the discretionary riders choosing to take the train
rather than drive.
COMFORT, PRODUCTIVITY, AND OPTION VALUE
Rail i s a unique transportation mode because of the level
of comfort and array of amenities it offers. Compared to other
transport ation mo des, rai l provid es more space to work and
relax, and it a llows passengers to walk comfortably wh ile in-
route. For ty-one percent of passengers surveyed on the H eart-
land Fly er reported the superior comfor t and relaxatio n of the
train a s a key reason for their deci-
sion to ta ke the train.59 There is
little doubt a major benefit of rail
is its ability t o reduce s tress nor-
mally associated with other travel
modes. Road congest ion as soci-
ated with automo bile travel has
been li nked to incr eased stress
levels and negative physiological
responses .60 Road and air tr avel
are o ften mor e st ressful tha n
train travel and, as such, for some
people, can have adverse health
implications.61 Rail is also unique
because, as mentioned previously,
it allows passengers to accomplish
work t hrough sup erior comf ort
and access to technology. Many
trains are now equipped with free
wireless internet, allowin g passen gers to work. Also, unlike
automobiles and airplanes, trains permit the safe use of mobile
devices. These characteristics allow travelers to recover poten-
tially lost work time or gain added leisure hours. Either outcome
is desirable from the standpoint of economic efficiency.
As previously noted, passenger rail will not displace cars as
the primary mode of transport for the majority of the U.S. popula-
tion any time in the near future. But this is not the goal of expand-
ing rail; rather, the goal is to provide a more diverse, sustainable
transportation system that offers travelers expanded choice, par-
ticularly in urban corridors where congestion and pollution are
particularly high. Passenger rail has option value for travelers, and
although individuals may not travel by rail every day, they have
the ability to use it when it is most convenient and efficient, cre-
ating a more sophisticated and dynamic transportation system. It
allows travelers to choose their mode of transport based on their
personal nee ds and preferences. Rail not only provides option
value, it enhances quality of life. In so doing, it promotes more
livable, and ultimately healthier, communities.
CONCLUSION
This i s a pivotal moment for passenger r ail in the United
States, as well as for the transportation system as a whole. The
Obama Administration’s current level of investment and politi-
cal will to expand rail significantly exceeds that of other recent
administrations. 62 But creating a comprehensive and dynamic
Rail is not a “magic
bullet” that will solve
the United States’
transportation and
energy woes, but it can
be part of the solution
to create a more
sustainable future
FALL 2010 16
1 Sustainability, Basic Information, U.S. envtl. prot. agency, http://www.
epa.gov/sustainability/basicinfo.htm (last updated Sept. 20, 2010).
2 u.S. energy inFo. aDmin, pub. no. DOE/EIA-0035, monthly energy
review 120 (2010), http://www.eia.doe.gov/mer/pdf/mer.pdf.
3 Martin V. Melosi, The Automobile Shapes the City, automobile in am. liFe
anD Socy, http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu/Environment/E_Casestudy/E_
casestudy1.htm (last visited Oct. 8, 2010).
4 See Car Pollution & the Cars Environmental Impact, livingSpace, http://
www.carenvironment.net (last visited Oct. 9, 2010) [hereinafter livingSpace].
5 See Sierra club, highway health haZarDS 6 (2004), http://www.sierraclub.
org/sprawl/report04_highwayhealth/report.pdf; livingSpace, supra note 4.
6 louiS p. cain, hiStorical StatiSticS oF the uniteD StateS, earlieSt timeS
to the preSent: millennial eDition Series Df927-955, 4-926 (Susan B. Gartner
et al. eds., 2006).
7 Lydia Boyd & Lynn Pritcher, Brief History of the U.S. Passenger Rail Indus-
try, DuKe univ. librarieS Digital collection, http://library.duke.edu/digitalc-
ollections/adaccess/rails-history.html (last modified Jan. 25, 2008).
8 Id.
9 Id.
10 cain, supra note 6.
11 Mark Reutter, The Lost Promise of the American Railroad, 18 wilSon q. 10,
23-24 (1994).
12 Id.
13 bureau oF tranSp, national tranSportation StatiSticS 2010, table 3-29b:
tranSportation eXpenDitureS by moDe anD level oF government From own
FunDS, http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/pdf/
entire.pdf [hereinafter national tranSportation StatiSticS 2010].
14 Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City, in technology anD valueS:
eSSential reaDingS 361, 363 (Craig Hanks ed., 2010).
15 am. public tranSp. aSSn, 2010 public tranSportation Fact booK,
11 (2010), http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/documents/factbook/
APTA_2010_Fact_Book.pdf.
16 Jim Ostroff, Generation Y Giving Cars a Pass, Kiplinger (Sept. 14, 2010),
http://www.kiplinger.com/businessresource/forecast/archive/no-cars-for-gener-
ation-y.html.
17 cong. buDget oFFice, the paSt anD Future oF u.S. paSSenger rail Service
27 (2003), http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/45xx/doc4571/09-26-PassengerRail.pdf.
18 amtraK , An Interim Assessment of Achieving Improved Trip Times on the
Northeast Corridor, 17 (Oct. 21, 2009) http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/Conten
tServer?c=Page&pagename=am/Layout&cid=1241245669222 (link to report:
Inside Amtrak, follow “Interim Assessment of Achieving Improved Trip Times
on the Northeast Corridor–PRIIA Section 212 (d)” hyperlink).
19 3C “Quick Start” Passenger Rail Plan, ohio Dept oF tranSp., http://www.
dot.state.oh.us/Divisions/Rail/Programs/passenger/3CisME/Pages/Benefits.aspx
(last visited Nov. 2, 2010).
20 See generally trimet, community builDing SourcebooK: lanD uSe anD
tranSportation optionS in portlanD, oregon, (Dec. 2007), http://trimet.org/
pdfs/publications/community_sourcebook.pdf.
21 u.S. gov. accountability oFFice, intercity paSSenger rail: national
policy anD StrategieS neeDeD to maXimiZe public beneFitS From FeDeral
eXpenDitureS 14-15 (2003), http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d0715.pdf.
22 Id. at 14.
23 DaviD ranDall peterman et al., u.S. cong. reSearch Service, high SpeeD
rail (hSr) in the uniteD StateS 14 (2009), http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/
R40973.pdf.
24 Id.
25 See paul taylor et al., pew reSearch center, Denver topS liSt oF Favor-
ite citieS: For nearly halF oF america, graSS iS greener Somewhere elSe 14
(2009), http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/Community-Satisfaction.pdf.
26 Id. at 15, 19, 21.
27 Robert Fishman, The Fifth Migration, 71 J. oF the am. plan. aSSn 357, 360
(2005).
28 u.S. energy inFo. aDmin., supra note 2, at 120.
29 Stuart Ramsey & David Hughes, The Challenge of the Oracle: Optimizing
Transportation Infrastructure in a Changing World, inSt.oF tranSp. engineerS
J., Feb. 2009 at 69, www.transportplanet.ca/WriteTheChallengeOfTheOracle.
pdf.
30 E.g. Habitats and Species Affected, center For biological DiverSity, http://
www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_
development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/habitats_and_species.html (last visited
Oct. 9, 2010) (listing the damages caused to animals in the Gulf of Mexico
from the 2010 oil spill).
31 See marc humphrieS, u.S. cong. reSearch Service, north american oil
SanDS: hiStory oF Development, proSpectS For the Future 21 (2008), www.
fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34258.pdf.
32 bureau oF tranSp. Stat., tranSportation StatiSticS annual report 2008
94 (2008), http://www.bts.gov/publications/transportation_statistics_annual_
rail system will require continued financial investment and polit-
ical fortitude. The United States is at a tipping point in regards to
its rail system. If the projects now planned and funded through
the American R einvestment Act63 are completed, the country’s
rail infrastructu re will be markedly strengthened , laying the
groundwork for future rail development. But if this opportunity
is lost and planned projects are not executed, passenger rail will
continue to be confined to only certain cities and corridors, with
little hope of fulfilling its pote ntial role as a key component of
a mul ti-modal transporta tion system. Unfortunately, at a time
when the federal government is more willing to fund rail devel-
opment, many states have staggering deficits that have rendered
rail a highly politicized issue. If rail, as w ell as other mo dal
alternatives, is not expanded, the auto-dependent transportation
system in the United States will become even less viable as its
population grows, its roads age, and the system’s lifeblood, oil,
becomes more expensive.
It is critical that the country begins to construct a more diverse
transportation system. In twenty to fifty years, maintaining the
current transportation system will become more costly, and from
an environmental and economic perspective, increasingly less
defensible. Development of intercity passenge r rail will bring
similar positive changes that subways have brought to U.S. cit-
ies throughout their long history. Imagine what the quality of life
would be like today in Washington, DC if the city had not built an
extensive subway system some thirty-five years ago and reduced
congestion. The United States would benefit from expanded rail
options to absorb some of the passenger load from roads and to
facilitate the transition to a transportation system less dependent
upon automobiles. It is also critical that rail does not stand on its
own; rather, it should be a component of a larger effort to cre-
ate a multi-modal transportation system. Rail is not a “magic bul-
let” that will solve the United States’ transportation and energy
woes, but it can be part of the solution to create a more sustainable
future. Fundamentally, passenger rail is worth investing in, not
only because it offers a means of reducing VMT, but because in
many cases it provides a better overall return on investment than
other transportation modes.
Endnotes: Rediscovering the Transportation Frontier: Improving
Sustainability in the United States through Passenger Rail
Endnotes: Rediscovering the Transportation Frontier
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