Fund high-speed rail, lose airport gridlock
By Robert Kuttner, 7/15/2001
TWO WEEKS AGO, needing to get from Boston to New York for a meeting, I decided to try Amtrak's new Acela Express. It was on time, at 3 hours and 20 minutes. Even so, the office-to-office trip took nearly two hours longer than the air shuttle ordinarily does.
Last week I had to be in New York again, for a 10:30 meeting. This time I opted for the 8 a.m. air shuttle. But a brief thunderstorm passed through the New York area, closing La Guardia for less than hour. However, that was enough to cause a morning's worth of bottlenecks. At 9:30, with no takeoff time in sight, the pilot kindly let some passengers get off the plane. The rest may still be there.
This country's major airports are on the verge of perpetual gridlock. Our one really successful fast train - the New York-Washington Metroliner (three hours) now has about 40 percent of the intercity air/rail business between those two cities. The Acela cuts that to two and a half hours.
If Amtrak got the New York-Boston run down to two and a half hours, it would basically put the air shuttle out of business. And this is not just a Northeast corridor story.
In Chicago, where there is a major political battle over a third airport, 40 percent of the flights are of distances less than 300 miles. In San Francisco, half the flights are 300 miles or less.
Amtrak has a plan to develop high-speed rail service in the Northwest (Portland-Seattle-Vancouver), the Gulf Coast (Atlanta-Birmingham-Jackson-New Orleans-Houston), the Southeast (Atlanta-Charleston-Charlotte-Richmond-Washington), and the Midwest, with Chicago as the hub of routes serving Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Louis.
Basically, with high-speed rail, it makes no sense to run major city flights shorter than 300 miles. In Germany, where trains routinely do better than 200 m.p.h., the government plans to phase out domestic air travel in favor of trains.
If Amtrak replaced shuttle flights between Washington, New York, and Boston, it would free about 60 takeoff and landing slots every hour. Bostonians would no longer be fighting about whether to expand Logan airport. LaGuardia would not be straining at capacity, benching travelers because of minor weather disturbances.
It makes no sense to build more large-city airports. Any sensible country would use rail service on trips between major cities of less then 300 miles. This would take more than enough pressure off airlines.
Amtrak's current on-time record is mediocre, but that's because of crumbling track beds and ancient electricity grids. What's preventing a modern high-speed rail system is warped budget priorities and the influence of two major lobbies: the highway coalition (autos, oil, truckers, and construction companies,) and airport interests (aircraft manufacturers and airlines).
A first class, high-speed rail system would cost about $2 billion a year in federally financed capital improvements (modern track, locomotives, and passenger coaches) over the next 20 years. Here's what your tax dollars currently finance: $14 billion in federal funds for airports every year and $33 billion for highways. Amtrak gets just $361 million. If we just diverted $2 billion of the airport money annually to rail service, we would free more than enough airport capacity to cover the diversion.
Or compare the cost of high-speed rail with the cost of President Bush's tax cut. The tax cut, at $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years, averages $130 billion a year - or more than 60 times the cost of building a high-speed rail system.
Needless to say, the Bush administration has no interest in diverting tax cut dollars to better intercity trains. However, there is progress on other fronts.
Fifty-eight US senators have cosponsored a bill to give Amtrak direct bonding authority. The bill has a very unusual name - the Lott-Daschle bill. Republican Senate leader Trent Lott, not a friend of big government or of bipartisanship, is joining Democratic leader Tom Daschle because even Mississippi needs rail service.
And in Florida last November, as voters were being flummoxed by hanging chads, they also passed a state constitutional amendment mandating expanded intercity rail service for that highway afflicted state.
Amtrak's existing trains could make the New York-Boston run in around two hours if they had decent tracks to run on. That will cost public dollars. Amtrak will break even on operations within the next two years, but it can't operate efficiently without capital improvements.
Europe and Japan had trains faster than Amtrak's Acela 30 years ago. But don't blame Amtrak if trains are slow and planes are gridlocked. Contact your favorite politician.
Robert Kuttner is coeditor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
This story ran on page 6 of the Boston Globe on 7/15/2001.