Yes, We Can Invest More in Trains While Managing our Public Debt

Ross Capon and Malcolm Kenton, National Association of Railroad Passengers , April 21, 2011

When concern about the size of the federal deficit is high, many people ask whether it is prudent to make what seem to be very large public investments in passenger trains. We think it is, and here’s why:

Current federal spending on intercity passenger trains represents less than 10 minutes’ worth of federal spending. Eliminating every non-security function of the federal government outside of entitlements and interest would have reduced the deficit by $666 billion last year, not even half the deficit.

Strengthening urban and intercity public transport helps avoid expenditures on highways and aviation and reduces the cost of social problems by making life easier for people who can’t or don’t want to drive. Doing so has the dual benefit of making for a healthier population through increased physical activity, and decreasing transportation’s impact on the air, water and land we all depend on.

High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail grants are merit-based, while highway money is distributed on the basis of a formula that actually rewards inefficiency, that is, overdependence on cars. The more a state’s residents drive, the more they contribute to the federal Highway Trust Fund through their gas taxes, and thus the more the state can spend on highway construction and maintenance.

Expanding and improving the national passenger train network gives the nation a sounder fiscal position for the future by facilitating our society’s adaptation to three mounting challenges that will come to define the early 21st century: inexorable population growth, the inevitable continued rise in the price of petroleum (on which much of our present standard of living is founded), and the related threat from worsening climate change.

If we are left without a world-class railroad network, we will all be stuck with longer and costlier commutes, leisure trips will become unaffordable to all but the wealthiest, and the effects of climate change (decreased agricultural output, more frequent severe weather, etc.) will become more pronounced more quickly.

We can’t afford not to ramp up investments towards a bigger national network of fast, frequent, reliable, modern passenger trains.

—Ross Capon and Malcolm Kenton


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