Roland Stephen

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    The Right Track

    April 5, 2011

    There has been a lot of huffing and puffing about passenger rail, including proposals for improvements to lines here in North Carolina. Some of this rhetoric seems to stem from a peculiar cultural suspicion of trains — those namby pamby French have lots of them, so they must be collectivist and therefore suspect. Yet 100 years ago Americans built and used some of the most extensive and impressive rail networks in the world. Objections shouldn’t be cultural so much as economic.

    And passenger rail is subject to more practical objections. Because of low density and long distances inter-city rail links are not really economic in much of the U.S., although the north east is an obvious exception. But it is increasingly obvious that North Carolina, in the heart of the mid-Atlantic seaboard and linked to both the northeast, southeast and mid-west, is also a good candidate for economic participation in passenger rail in the years ahead.

    North Carolina often congratulates itself on its economic development success, but humility (the state’s principal virtue, we are told) requires that we acknowledge the good fortune conferred by geography — a circumstance cemented by the confluence of I95, I85 & I40. The state presently profits from this through an extensive road network, a choice consistent with an historical settlement pattern characterized by numerous small and medium sized cities.

    But the future looks very different, for a variety of reasons, and a transportation network limited to only one mode may prove to be woefully inadequate. The state is growing rapidly, and all that growth will be concentrated in a few cities, especially in the urban arc stretching from the Triangle to Charlotte. If the improvements now proposed for the rail connection along this corridor are completed, then travel times will be close to those enjoyed by drivers, when there is no traffic! But traffic congestion will grow, and urban/suburban residents will increasingly prefer greater choice in their transportation options. (I well remember a roadside poster denouncing the renewal of the local sales tax in Charlotte dedicated to mass transit. I had a good look at it because I was stuck there in traffic for 20 minutes).

    Furthermore, energy prices will rise. This simple reality should be at the heart of many policy debates. Whatever the source, whatever the purpose, energy prices will rise. We have at present a transportation network predicated on cheap liquid fuel. This will be an expensive way to live in the years ahead.

    We also have a transportation network aimed chiefly at serving suburban families in low density settings. Nothing wrong with that if you can afford it. But as our population ages, as income inequality takes its toll, and as in migration brings new kinds of people to North Carolina, a dense, more urban way of life will be chosen by city residents.

    Finally, the car mono-culture will slowly give way to a taste for many different kinds of transportation options, a change made easier by new technologies. Short range electric vehicles, mass-transit in urban areas, and even bicycles, will play a larger role.

    All this mean that there will be great value in the years ahead from making incremental improvements now to the rail corridor that runs across our state. This is a sure way to continue to profit from our fine location. Consider those tiresome French again. They have an excellent highway system alongside their famous railways (far better maintained than the German autobahn, if you can believe that!). It is privatized and run on tolls, and gas is heavily taxed. Which means that the true cost of road transportation is paid for by drivers, and as a result, many take the train.

    Economy, Environments

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