Friday, March 13, 2009

The fast train to nowhere

From the 16 March 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

After hearing Governor Paterson’s press conference about the prospects for a high speed rail line that would cut across the Empire Corridor, many people enthusiastically jumped on board with the idea. It seemed that citizens and press all to a man followed the political class, repeating in earnest what local, state, and federal officials had said…that it will be a boon to the economy.

I hate to burst your bubble, but this train will not be the cure for what ails our economy. Not even close. As a matter of fact, it might turn into one of the symptoms: 10 years from now, when its mostly-empty cars pass by your home, the train will be but a recurring reminder of how stale the local economy has become.

A lot of readers will think that I’m being pessimistic here. No, I’m being realistic.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of railroads and a supporter of their future development (refer to my column “America’s Rail Crisis” from July, 2008). But, I know that when keeping our nation’s economy on track two things are first and foremost for rail development: One, moving freight great distances efficiently and affordably and, two, transporting people short distances for the purposes of commuting to their employment (much like the NFTA’s MetroRail does).

The high speed rail fails to address either.

I wrote the following in the aforementioned column: “There are 140,000 miles of track in the US, over which 2 billion tons of freight are moved annually. This accounts for approximately 15% of all freight tonnage transported across the States and its contribution has been growing at a 5% annual rate. This tame growth in rail freight is expected to explode in the next few years as high gasoline prices stifle development in truck transportation. Because of….road congestion brought on by our rapidly-growing population (there will be a third more Americans by 2040)….the expectations for rail freight are expected to double by 2030.”

With such an explosion, logjams and delays will be the norm. In some places, like Chicago, they already are. So, by making freight an afterthought, our government fails to focus on what matters most to the greater good. To stimulate the economy, and thusly employ people, ease of trade must take precedence.

Their logic behind the focus on moving people has me shaking my head and asking questions. Are you telling me that everything will work out just right so that thousands of workers can commute from Buffalo to Rochester daily and have easy access to their jobs? Do you really think that their employer will be located near the train station or is accessible by other forms of public transportation?

That thinking may have worked back in the 1800’s or early 1900’s when development was centralized in the heart of the big cities. But, now it won’t work because the jobs are more widespread. For most of the Upstate region the best and most numerous employment opportunities for the average person are no longer to be had in the hearts of metropolises. The city limits and the suburbs are where it’s at. Centralization is a thing of the past in Upstate, and in many of the other regions that have applied for funds.

The transportation argument continues with state officials saying that this train will incite economic growth by facilitating business and tourism travel. We can see the fallacy of that claim already in this region. In recent years the Buffalo Niagara airport has become home to a bevy of affordable airlines that all service popular destinations. The world is accessible to Western New York and vice versa. On top of that, the Department of Transportation says that among the top 100 airports, it has the eleventh-cheapest fares. So, if cheap and easy transportation is the magic elixir for a sick economy, why hasn’t the air situation, which meets those standards, done anything to jumpstart the local economy?

That said, it’s a no-brainer that the $8 billion of stimulus money is better spent on upgrading the existing rail system, improving the delivery of freight and not people. But, Congress and the States don’t see it that way because they prefer to be salesmen instead of statesmen. The 2030 deadline is too far out there for our elected officials. They don’t think in the long term. They’re more concerned with short-term “victories” because that’s what wins elections. And, so do low-impact ideas that sound sexy - like high-speed rail - because they win the confidence of the average voter who doesn’t see the big picture for what it is…a big picture that shows an economy that could easily get derailed.

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