Wes Vernon Commentary
February 2011

Crumbling Roads - Blame the Passenger Train?

No doubt you have heard the old analogy of the arsonist rushing in to put out the fire, thereby acquiring (or reaching for) the status of a hero.

Headlines tell the story

Herewith is a prime example of how our fragmented highway-oriented rubber tire culture has been wringing its hands over a problem it created:

Two headlines constitute Exhibit A. One of them (courtesy of The Washington Examiner) reads Region's Roads and Bridges Crumbling. The second one--several days later--reads High-speed rail is a fast way to waste taxpayer money.

Well, yes. When you subsidize roads while taxing railroads, guess which transportation mode is going to end up as the dominant conveyance? No coaching from the audience please.

By way of a hint, if you want more of something, you subsidize it. If you want less of it, you tax it. It is not brain surgery. Let's just say that if the government were to subsidize houses of ill repute, there would likely be one on every corner.

What is the reason?

Here is what happened: Our all-knowing wise men in Washington who paved over America with reckless abandon (thus driving America's taxpaying passenger rail operations into the public sector) and are now shocked! Shocked! Shocked! That lo and behold, it actually costs money to maintain all that asphalt. But they dare not raise the gas tax because motorists are choking on gas tax increases that have mounted over five decades, and are yelling "Stop".

But clueless officials on the local level apparently still don't get it. According to one of them, "Another problem [in Maryland and Virginia] is that as one [road] project is fixed, other problems inevitably arise . . . To keep up with road maintenance, states and communities are using money [for repairs] they had been saving to build new roads."

So goal, as they see it, is building more roads? Oh, but we don't have the money because those tightwads behind the wheel (including many against their will if only they had a choice) won't spring for the scratch. Help! Murder! Police!

Now as for "high-speed" rail

The second article referenced above opines that high-speed rail (HSR) is wasting your resources and mine.

Let us allow as how we are left with a passenger train technology originally crafted in the 19th century and only ever so incrementally upgraded beyond early 20th century (steam-locomotive) standards. Of course the cost will be heavy if we are to try overnight to zoom that infrastructure into the 21st century and get handed a lump sum bill for what we should have been working on for about the last 25% of this nation's very existence. That's going to cause sticker shock, n'est pas?

The same would apply if we were to go straight from the horse-and-buggy-accommodating dirt roads to the Interstate Highway system in one fell swoop with no steps in between. But sticker shock need not necessarily equal "waste." It can just as easily signal that we are trying to play catch-up, albeit possibly more quickly than politically viable.

Errors of fact

The right of columnists to vent their opinions is something to be respected. (We do plenty of it in this space). But opinion does not entitle one to his own facts.

Many of the long-overdue passenger train projects that the media have been labeling "high-speed" are nothing of the sort.


The Ohio rail project--rejected by the new governor of that state--was not (and was never claimed to be) "high-speed." It was merely to be a conventional train service that would have connected Ohio's major cities at decent times of the day (in contrast to the graveyard hours Ohio is served by three long-distance East Coast-Chicago trains). The need for the service that would have given Ohioans a travel choice is obvious.


The writer in question also mentioned "$800 billion" that had been rejected by Wisconsin for a proposed rather conventional speed train from Milwaukee to Madison. Actually, the price tag was $800 million--with an "m," not with a "b."

Our own area

The "waste" columnist complained that trains often are slower door-to-door than the automobile.

In responding to that "waste" charge, one reader posted that the MARC train takes about two hours to get from Martinsburg, West Virginia to Washington, DC over roughly 60 track miles. Theoretically, if a driver could make the same trip at an average speed of 65 miles an hour, he would get there in half the time.

Two problems with that, says the reader: The driving distance is closer to 90 miles, and I-270 from Frederick to the Beltway is "a parking lot." Result: a commute-time of three hours minimum.

And just for good measure, this: "Of course, people work on the train, some sleep, read, or just relax. So those two hours are completely lost if a person drives, while they can be very productive [during the time] on the train."

Pesky maintenance

A familiar protest heard in Ohio, Wisconsin and other states is that once these passenger train operations are up and running, "We'll be stuck with the cost of having to maintain it."

As opposed to highways where gas-taxed-to-the-eyeballs motorists won't give state bureaucrats enough money to do more than patch potholes with money that "they had been saving to build more roads" [Sob! Baw!].