Rejuvenating the rail system
The stimulus package will pour a lot of money into road and bridge repair, but would taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck by investing in the freight rail system?
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President Obama has promised to fix the nation's infrastructure by proposing a once-in-a-generation project he says would rival the creation of the federal highway system back in the 1950s. His stimulus package contains nearly $50 billion dedicated to enhancing transportation, the bulk of it for building and improving roads, highways, and bridges. But, in addition, there is $8 billion for high-speed passenger rail service.
Philip Longman of The New America Foundation makes the argument for rails over roads, instead of rails in addition to roads. "Ultimately, we could get as many as 83% of all long-haul trucks off of the roads simply by making some, in today's terms, modest investments."
Longman says that a single train can move as many containers as 280 trucks while using one-third of the energy.
"In fact, through electrification, we can run railroads that are powered by solar, or wind, or hydro: zero emissions."
Longman quotes a study that says it would take $250 to $500 billion to electrify the rail infrastructure. Also of importance is the clearing of "choke points" within the rail system. In Chicago, for example, it takes 48 hours for a train, in some circumstances, to travel five miles; that is longer than it takes to get that train from Chicago to New York.
Baltimore is host to another rail choke point. One of the tunnels along the I-95 corridor is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Given its age, it is too narrow to get modern rail cars through. As a result, says Longman, "Trains are not competitive all along the I-95 corridor. All it would take is to shovel a little bit deeper into that tunnel to make it tall enough to get the trains through."
Rejuvenation of the nation's rail system has implications in a number of areas outside of those directly affected by transport of goods. Ray Magliozzi, one of the hosts of the public radio program "Car Talk" has said that rebuilding the rails can rebuild Detroit, because Detroit auto workers can be the ones to build the locomotives.
"In fact, General Motors, until they sold the division, was the world's leading maker of diesel-electric locomotives. General Electric is still a leader in that business and it has an idled plant near Erie, Pennsylvania that could go to work right away," says Longman.
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