Get Creative to Meet Growing Need for Rail

Posted June 12, 2008 at 1:51pm

Each dreaded stop at a gas pump and every infuriating minute spent idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic are nagging reminders of the nation’s growing transportation challenges.

Skyrocketing gas prices, which recently eclipsed the $4-per-gallon average nationally for the first time, are draining drivers’ wallets.

And transportation departments cannot build highways fast enough to keep up with the exponential growth in passenger car and truck traffic.

This costly one-two punch already has altered our driving habits.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that Americans cut their driving by about 4.3 percent — or 11 billion miles — in March compared to the same period in 2007.

Americans also scaled back their travel during the Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 2002, according to AAA.

Another consequence has been that more commuters are keeping their cars in the driveway and boarding trains, buses and other mass transit.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, transit officials reported that ridership has climbed by about 14 percent during the past 18 months and 24 percent during the past three years.

Naturally, the public’s increasing willingness to reach for a train pass instead of the car keys has some wondering whether it’s time for Congress to step up its light-rail and commuter-rail funding.

Congress does not have the luxury of unlimited resources for light rail, but the current five-year transportation funding package known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users increased transit funding by 46 percent over the previous plan, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Transit funding, which includes light rail, has roughly doubled since 1991, the service reported.

More help should soon be on the way.

Congress is poised to pass the bipartisan Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act.

The legislation would provide $2.5 billion for states to pick up the capital costs of facilities and equipment needed to establish intercity passenger rail lines.

However, the federal government must do more than just throw money at the problem.

While additional funding is desperately needed, we also must find ways to cut through red tape to speed up completion of projects without compromising environmental standards.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, the project development period averages more than 10 years.

That is too long and simply unacceptable.

Lengthy development periods mean higher costs and more congestion on already clogged roads.

We need to find ways to move these critical projects forward, especially for those with funding in place.

During my three terms in the U.S. House, I have worked closely with state and local officials to come up with funding for restoring commuter-rail service between Philadelphia and its western suburbs.

Local officials realized that the rail project is essential to reducing the number of vehicles cramming area roads and to revitalizing the communities along the proposed 62-mile route.

Like with so many deserving projects, the biggest obstacle has been scraping together money, this time for a project originally pegged at about $2 billion.

The experience has proved that while the federal government will always play an important role in rail projects, Congress must become more creative in funding light-rail and commuter-rail projects.

Government and private business must become partners if Congress ever hopes to leverage the kind of investment it will take to implement a comprehensive commitment to light rail and other transportation projects.

Australia, India, Nigeria and European nations have turned to these partnerships to meet their transportation needs.

Closer to home, the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit line is a shining example of a public-private partnership that has benefited residents and visitors to the Minneapolis area.

The 12-mile rail line harnessed the power of the private sector to design and build rail vehicles and to place rail signal and communication equipment along the route, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Trains started running in 2004.

In just two years, an average of 28,260 riders used the service daily. Ridership levels were not expected to reach that level until at least 2020.

Transportation officials in Minneapolis reported that the light-rail line has spurred development and eased congestion on area roads.

In New Jersey, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line provides another blueprint for success.

David B. Horner, chief counsel for the Federal Transit Administration, told a House panel last year that the public-private partnership resulted in the line opening five years ahead of schedule.

In addition to saving time, the partnership saved taxpayers about $345 million compared to conventional procurement procedures, Horner said while appearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Designing, building and operating light-rail lines are not the only areas where more cooperation is needed.

Freight railroads and transit operators should be working together instead of squabbling over right-of-way issues that have the potential of derailing projects.

Permitting passenger rail service to share the same right-of-way with freight-rail service would eliminate land acquisition costs and avoid eminent domain battles that can drag on for years in the courts.

So while Congress will continue working on finding funding for projects that will aid communities and commuters, there must be an increased urgency to think beyond traditional funding models.

Otherwise, many of these much-needed light-rail projects will remain stuck in the blueprint stage. And commuters will be stuck paying for $4-per-gallon gasoline and in rush-hour traffic jams.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.