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US rail transit in 2007
[Graphic: NSTPRSC]


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Federal Panel's Call for Motor Fuel Tax Hike to Fund Infrastructure Upgrade Stirs Transport Policy Debate

Susan Pantell With Light Rail Now Project Team · April 2008

A major federal commission, citing a looming crisis in America's transportation infrastructure and proposing a gradual increase in federal motor fuel taxes to help address it, has stirred up a heated national controversy involving broad transportation policy issues, ideological dogma, a dispute over the relative responsibilities of the public vs. private sectors in infrastructure development and maintenance, and apparent hanky-panky by the current Bush administration.

The National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission (NSTPRSC), a twelve- member bipartisan panel consisting of experts from around the country, was created by Congress in 2005 to study how to improve the nation's transportation infrastructure. The Commission's final report, Transportation for Tomorrow – released on 15 January 2008 and approved by a 9-3 majority of the commission – calls for raising the federal motor fuel tax up to 40 cents per gallon over five years to help pay for transportation infrastructure and expand highways, public transit, and rail.

These improvements are expected to cost $225 billion each year for the next 50 years. The current fuel tax of 18.4 cents per gallon would be increased by 5 to 8 cents annually for five years, beginning in 2009, and then indexed to inflation. This tax has not been increased since 1993, and recent efforts by Congress to raise it have not been successful mainly because of objections by the Bush administration. According to the Commission, other sources of revenue for transport infrastructure improvements could come from tolls, peak-hour "congestion pricing" on highways, freight fees, and ticket taxes for passenger rail improvements.

Rail passenger services

Expanding and accelerating rail passenger service development is one of the most significant recommendations of the Commission's report, which emphasizes that

Passenger rail transportation is a key component of the Commissionís vision for the future, and the Nation should pursue the development of a fast and reliable rail passenger network. The Commission believes that Intercity Passenger Rail is a critical missing link in the Nationís surface transportation system.

As the report notes,

Intercity passenger rail investment would help meet important national energy and environmental goals by shifting travel to trains, which consume approximately 17 percent less energy per passenger mile than air carriers and 21 percent less energy per passenger mile than automobiles.

The map below (Exhibit 4-21 from the report) illustrates the Commission's proposal for an intercity passenger rail network in 2050. Developed by the Passenger Rail Working Group (PRWG) – a subcommittee of the Commission – the plan envisions a passenger rail network further elaborated with long-term capital cost and ridership projections also presented in the report. The PRWG also emphasizes that the plan and map are illustrative, "as the exact routes that would be included in such a network could differ."

USA rail

[Graphic: NSTPRSC]

It should be noted here that the report also alludes briefly to the importance of urban transit systems, with the observation that:

Transit is an essential element of the Nationís transportation network, providing basic mobility for people who do not own cars. [...] Transit use is not, however, limited to those who cannot afford private vehicles.... Many riders come from households that own cars, but these riders choose to use public transit because it is often more convenient and less expensive than highway transportation. Just as an adequate highway network provides mobility for people who prefer a suburban or rural lifestyle, a high-quality transit system does the same for people who opt to live in a dense, urban environment.

Transit is critical to the Nationís productivity and economic development. Businesses and governments depend on transit to move large numbers of people during peak periods. Transit greatly reduces the number of motorists on the Nationís highways, lessening the impact of congestion. Transit also plays an important role in the development of new communities. Corridors with well- functioning transit systems often attract restaurants, office buildings, and retail establishments.

In conjunction with these observations, the report provides a map (see below) of rail transit systems in the USA as of 2007, as if to emphasize the importance of rail transit. (Unfortunately, the report's map omits two important new rail transit systems – Tacoma's light rail streetcar and Nashville's regional passenger/"commuter" rail operation.) However, as discussed further below, much of this section, elaborating on the significant value of rail transit, and calling for an intensified federal focus on rail transit development, was excised by Department of Transportation personnel without the immediate knowledge of the Commission.

USA rail transit

[Graphic: NSTPRSC]

Bush administration dissents

However, the Bush administration – surely the most anti-rail administration in recent US history – was certainly not going to stand by and let the Commission's report pass without resistance. The Commission's chairwoman, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, and two other conservative members of the panel remained opposed to fuel tax increases and issued a dissenting opinion – at the direction of the White House, according to Secretary Peters. The dissenters advocate reliance on "market" approaches to raising funds, including tolls and public-private partnerships, along with reductions in federal spending. Their primary emphasis would promote roads, with little or no attention to rebuilding the rail system. [Renew America, 21 Jan. 2008.]

Reliance solely on the market to provide transportation infrastructure, according to Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post (21 Jan. 2008), "Is an astonishingly radical view of government's role in transportation."

Cast backward, it would suggest that President Dwight D. Eisenhower never should have built the interstate highway system; it should have been left to private companies to build roads wherever tolling could generate a profit, and nowhere else. The result [would have been] an incomplete, disconnected patchwork of highways.

Hiatt continues:

The rational majority of the commission also understands that the current underinvestment, if continued, will cost lives (see: the collapsed bridge in Minnesota in August), time and economic growth, and that the government has to play a role along with the private sector.

The Peters model might work if the only national interest were maximum efficiency. But if the nation cares about the environment, about staying connected, about balancing roads and rail and transit, then it will have to invest, as a nation, and plan, as a nation. The bipartisan nature of the commission report gives hope that the next administration, whoever leads it, will understand that."

The opposition to raising the fuel tax appears to reflect an ideological preference by the current Bush administration for privatization of transportation services. Certainly, in some cases, public-private partnerships may have an advantageous role in developing light rail and other major public transport projects. For example, participation by private investors may allow a project to be built more quickly, saving money in the long run, or may make the difference in whether a project is built at all. A transit agency might want to contract with a company for small-scale startup services, so that they can see whether such a new service works and fine-tune it before committing heavier agency resources and restructuring the agency to provide it.

However, over-reliance on private funding could be detrimental in several ways. Companies are motivated by maximizing profits, but the government is tasked with providing services for all citizens, in particular those most in need of public transit – the elderly, disabled and children, as well as people who cannot afford to drive. Transit systems also need to be planned and coordinated so that they work well and meet the goals of a region, state or nation.

Transportation is a natural monopoly, meaning that one firm can produce the desired output at a lower social cost than several firms. If a private company is in charge of providing service for a natural monopoly, it can raise prices and cut or limit services, and the consumer has nowhere else to turn. Another problem with privatization is the lack of transparency of decisions made by private entities. Businesses can refuse to provide information about their decision processes and are often not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. In addition, their representatives are not subject to the same ethical standards as public officials regarding conflicts of interest. As a result, the public is less able to monitor or participate in the decision process or to hold those in power accountable. If the private sector effort fails, the government will need to provide the service and absorb the additional cost of doing so.

Feds censor report

Controversy has not been confined merely to the Bush administration's highly publicized rejection of the central theme of the Commission's study. Widespread criticism has also been leveled at the Department of Transportation for secretively excising crucial sections of the report.

A pro-light rail transit section of the NSTPRSC report, written by Commission member Paul Weyrich and adopted by a 9-3 majority vote of the Commission, was deleted from the Commission's final report. Weyrich, a leading conservative activist, is also a highly regarded supporter of public transportation, and in particular, light rail. When he heard of the deletion, Weyrich told the National Corridors Initiative organization that "It is disappointing that after the paragraphs indicated were passed by a nine to three vote that someone without ever asking me would see to it to do away with these important policy considerations. It is the kind of gutter politics which make people hate their government, and Washington in general." (21 Jan. 2008.)

In the deleted section (see citation below), Weyrich writes that public transportation, in particular electric rail, must have a significantly larger role in Americans' mobility and that federal policy should encourage this development. He cites reasons for the need for public transportation improvements including diminished air quality, increased congestion and reduced vitality of cities, national security and increasing gas prices, and increased difficulty in building roads due to right-of-way and land and environmental constraints. He says that rail is superior to bus transit because people prefer trains and streetcars to buses, rail spurs development and re-development, and most new rail is electrified, with corresponding environmental and security benefits.

Weyrich proposes that Federal policy promote the spread of rail transit by immediately implementing two changes: 1. "FTA criteria for the evaluation of requests for funding for electric rail projects, especially streetcars, should be re-written to take all relevant factors into account, including development impact, and to remove criteria that are not relevant, such as time of travel for streetcars;" and 2. "the Small Starts funding program, . . . . should be returned to its original purpose, which was to encourage new streetcar systems." His most forward-thinking suggestion is that, "Federal support for public transportation generally and electrified rail transit in particular should be made automatic, based on the population of the area served." He concludes, "In the long term, it should be the objective of Federal transportation policy to provide every American the option of mobility without an automobile." [Destination:Freedom: A Weekly North American Transportation Update, Vol. 9 No. 3, 21 Jan. 08.] It is worth reading the full text of his discussion at: [link]

According to Renew America, a revised draft of the deleted section was written, primarily by Commissioner Frank McArdle, a contractor from New York, with Weyrich's approval. The tone of Weyrich's section was altered to some extent, but the section still concludes that, "Public transportation, especially in the form of electric railways, must and will play a significantly larger role in Americans' mobility over the next 50 years and beyond." (28 Jan. 2008.) However, the printed version already went out to the media and decision-makers, so this section will only appear in online versions. (21 Jan. 2008.)

Light Rail Now is publishing Paul Weyrich's DOT-excised section as a separate article; see:

Support for Electric Rail Should Be "Strong Focus" of US Federal Policy, Says Commission Report ... Oops, Snipped by Bush Administration Censors

San Diego LRT San Diego pioneered modern light rail transit resurgence in late 1970s, demonstrating that rail transit would attract car-loving Californians. System has grown to several lines with average weekday ridership of over 108,000 per day.
[Photo: Richard Panse]

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