Experts debate rail

Is State Ready for Rail?

Rail advocates, researchers clash on key issues

By Lexie Clinton
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Advocates for improving the nation’s passenger rail system see it as a faster, cleaner way to travel. But other transportation policy experts believe those benefits are overstated and don’t justify the high cost of providing passenger train service. Here’s a look at the dueling perspectives.

On trains being a transportation silver bullet

President Barack Obama has backed high-speed rail as a way to improve the U.S. transportation system. In April, the president said rebuilding America’s passenger rail lines “will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system.”VISIONREPORTpic

But some transportation experts disagree.

“I really don’t think passenger rail is going to do much to alleviate road congestion,” said Rick Geddes, a Cornell University professor who studies surface transportation policy. “If your goal is to reduce congestion on the roads, high-speed passenger rail is a very, very expensive way of addressing that policy concern.” Taxpayer money, Geddes said, may be better spent on highway infrastructure than rail.

On keeping up with Europe, Asia

Obama also has suggested America will fall behind internationally without improved passenger rail. “There’s no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders,” he said, citing high-speed systems in France, Spain and Japan as models for the United States. The speech was made in April, outlining the vision for how to distribute federal stimulus money for high-speed passenger rail.

Researchers who have studied the topic say important factors are often overlooked when comparing the U.S. system to other countries. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on passenger rail earlier this year, demand for train service overseas greatly surpasses anywhere in the United States.GAOREPORTpic

The cost of driving is another issue. The GAO studied passenger rail systems in France, Japan and Spain and concluded automobile travel in those countries is “significantly more expensive than in the United States,” making train travel a much more attractive option for consumers.

The GAO report also noted that Japan doesn’t build new high-speed rail lines unless rider fees can fully cover operating and maintenance costs. That situation is unlikely to happen here, the report suggested.

On reducing air pollution

Politicians also are jumping on board for rail as an alternative to reliance on foreign oil and a more environmentally friendly transit option.

Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi calls rail “an opportunity to really clean up the environment.” Although he says trains and buses emit less greenhouse gas than cars and planes, he acknowledged he has no figures to show a Wisconsin rail system, which would run on diesel, could actually achieve this goal.

“We can’t just be out there saying it’s better for the environment,” Busalacchi said. “We’ve got to have backup data that shows that it’s better for the environment, and that’s why we want U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation) to do those studies, to show that.”

The issue has been studied nationally. According to the U.S. DOT’s High-Speed Rail Strategic Plan, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by six billion pounds annually if all 10 federally approved rail lines, including Wisconsin’s, were built.

Still, at least one researcher contends that’s not enough. Randal O’Toole, author of a rail study with the conservative think tank, the Cato Institute, said passenger rail will have few long-term environmental benefits. According to O’Toole, the diesel-powered trains may consume more energy than more-energy efficient cars and planes likely to be developed in the future.CATOREPORTpic

O’Toole also said the real beneficiaries of passenger rail projects “will not be the environment or riders, but the companies that will design and construct the lines and equipment.”

One thing is certain: The push for high-speed rail is already well down the tracks. By fall, $8 billion in federal stimulus money is expected to be allotted to states, likely including Wisconsin. And over the next five years, President Obama has called for an additional $5 billion for passenger rail, adding, “This is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future.”

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with its partners — Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication — and other news media.

This content is provided free to news media of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism credit tag line must accompany all uses of the story. Click here for more information.


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