Is it really a wiser choice?

One article that I allocated last week when I hosted Carnival of Maryland 37 was from the local blog Lost On The Shore, and it argued for investing more into mass transit as oil prices show no sign of subsiding in the near future. Obviously the investment Tom argued for would be from our already-bloated state government in concert with other East Coast states along the I-95 corridor and would ideally result in a high-speed rail system similar to those found in Europe or Japan.

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I’ll give him credit for having enough sense to realize that this would be almost by necessity a system limited in geographic scope because, even at 150 miles per hour, train travel is nowhere near as timely as air travel on a coast-to-coast basis. However, there already is one large obstacle to bringing in a high-speed rail system and it’s not really the cost for infrastructure – the roadblock is called Amtrak. While Tom brings up the fact that Amtrak trains are sold out far in advance, having a heavily subsidized entity already in the rail market all but prohibits the sort of private investment that could make such a enterprise worthwhile. Unlike the freight business, passenger rail became too much of a burden after the advent of the interstate system made auto travel easier and faster so by the early 1970’s no large-scale railroad player remained in the intercity passenger rail business. (Thinking about passenger trains also brings to mind one of my favorite books, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But I digress.) In stepped the federal government and Amtrak was created.

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Unfortunately, each time Congress has mentioned slashing the huge subsidies for train travel – particularly during the heady days of the Contract With America – Democrats and the rail unions (but I repeat myself) have mustered up the votes and the sympathy to continue Amtrak’s gravy train for another budget year. In the meantime, the condition of the tracks slowly deteriorates and obsolete labor rules are kept in force so that anyone who wanted to compete on a level playing field with our national train service could probably clean their clock in little to no time. But that taxpayer subsidy slants the board in such a way to discourage competition.

(It’s definitely an aside, but over the weekend I had the opportunity to ride on Baltimore’s light rail system. While it was convenient enough, taking my friend and I to the gates of Camden Yards, the quality of service left something to be desired – in particular the dearth of trains at a time schedulers should know will be quite busy.)

I also wanted to talk a little bit about bus service and local transit options. I have no idea what the fare is to ride Shore Transit, only that I see a bus go by my house every so often when I’m home and paying attention. And perhaps with the price of gas what it is right now, a more full bus may mean that the service actually comes closer than ever to breaking even. However, my experience is that transit services of that type (particularly paratransit) operate at a loss. In Ohio, where such items are allowed by state law, every few years there would be placed on the ballot a property tax levy or renewal to support Toledo’s regional transit system and it would always pass despite my objections. Here in Maryland, a portion of the state gasoline tax helps defray costs – of course with fewer people driving that shortfall in gasoline tax collection is eating away anything gained by increased ridership. It’s a typical Catch-22 in government; when the people do what’s asked of them they lose in the long run anyway. As a matter of fact, this AP story yesterday by Jim Abrams warns of a possible gas tax increase due to – you guessed it – people using fewer gallons of gasoline because they’ve cut back on driving.

To me, “Fedzilla” (I told you I liked that term) is presenting far too many obstacles to more efficient, cost-effective transportation. By subsidizing an overhead-heavy railroad with our tax dollars it’s discouraging someone who may want to come in make the investment in infrastructure necessary to build the rail system Tom desires. By not allowing and encouraging oil exploration domestically they’re leaving gasoline prices higher than they could be if they simply got out of the way, and the price of diesel fuel is crippling the trucking industry – especially small independent operators. And by threatening to increase taxes even more on each gallon, they’re perpetuating a scam that sends money to states to build bike paths or further subsidize modes of transport which simply aren’t cost-effective or useful to many workers, some who, like myself, need to have their car available for field work or other job-related items.

Given the choice, I’d prefer to allow the market to decide how best to move people around. Oh yes, it already has, which is why practically every household in America has a driveway with a car on it. With rare exceptions, that car is the most convenient mode of transportation to get from Point A to Point B and it’s only because the price of oil has reached intolerable levels that much discussion of the mass transit issue has ensued. Being the kind of guy who likes free choice, I think our best approach to mass transit is to let it sink or swim on its own merits, and something tells me that the call wouldn’t be made for a bus on every corner if gas prices return to more appropriate levels.

Crossposted on monoblogue.

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