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ODOT versus ideology

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Garl B. Latham

Ruminations of a foaming professional.

ODOT versus ideology

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I suppose the danger always exists. A simple advocate develops into a "true believer," then, taking the plunge, finally becomes an ideologue.

By remaining aware of that possibility, perhaps I'll escape such a fate. Besides, I enjoy my cognitive, volitional, creative abilities!

These matters recently came to mind as I considered my knee-jerk responses to ideology in action: the ongoing fight by some against Ohio's Cleveland-Columbus-Dayton-Cincinnati "3C" passenger train proposal and the millions of stimulus dollars that plan will consume.

On the project's side, we see a few of the usual players, including political pundits, transit activists, hopeful bureaucrats, wishful thinkers and consultants by the score, all cheering the federal government's largesse.

Amtrak has completed yet another Feasibility Study, conducted at the behest of an interested party. "The nature or purpose of a corridor study is to assist a state in determining the practicality or 'feasibility' of a specific passenger train service proposed by the state," says the document. Still, other studies have helped present the need for transport alternatives and potential ridership along the line, so one can't fault Amtrak for remaining within the scope of its work.

Polls have been released, which indicate wide-ranging support for the new passenger trains. In fact, the project's goals are upheld by approximately two-thirds of all Ohioans.

Standard arguments, such as environmental friendliness, energy efficiency and opportunities for Transit-Oriented Development, all tout the myriad benefits of the plan.

So, what's not to like?

Well, I find that question quite difficult to answer!

General George Patton once said, "A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow," which, with a nod to Voltaire, seems to indicate the logic of starting now, even with 39 mile-per-hour average terminal-to-terminal speeds.

Certain conservative commentators love to fret over "liberal statists" and their desire to eliminate individual liberty through expanded railway passenger service. The "Right Ohio" web site opines that "mass transportation is about CONTROLLING YOUR LIVES [emphasis theirs] and telling you when and how you should travel, while wasting your money in the process," which causes me to wonder about the writer's background instead of seriously considering his opinion.

As one might imagine, comparing conventional passenger trains to horse-drawn stages or paddle-wheel steamboats doesn't do anything but alienate the sincere railroad advocate within.

How can we satisfy those who approach complex issues with minds hopelessly clouded by ideology? This question is especially important when we realise these people aren't necessarily wrong - at least not simply because they're ideologues.

Is it possible they can never be satisfied?

I must confess my disappointment when ODOT chief Jolene Molitoris insisted that further studies were necessary before substantive information could be provided in support of the 3C proposal. However, Ohio Senate President Bill Harris (an opposition leader) has it easy. If Molitoris simply defended her previous statements regarding the various benefits which could be derived from reasonable investments in railroad passenger service, he'd be able to insist upon an entire series of professional studies to support those claims. If she suggested the need for more studies, he could oppose spending additional money on the project before the myriad "facts" were settled!

Personally, I can see the realities of T.O.D. all across these United States - as might anyone with internet access. The gainsayer's common ploy, which (essentially) states that "trains work everywhere except here," falls flat upon inspection. Unfortunately, that argument remains successful amongst those who tend to benefit from the status quo, or still hold to the myth that railway passenger service is the only form of transportation which receives subsidy.

What Ohio seeks to do is begin the process of providing reasonable transportation options for future generations. That's big-picture stuff! Should we continue agonising over a passenger train route whose up-front capital costs wouldn't even cover the construction of two freeway interchanges?

If our automobile-centred culture is ultimately unsustainable, then its fall is inevitable. To begin making a few baby steps - now - toward the restoration of rail-based intrastate passenger service seems pretty logical to me.

Eventually, you've just got to bite the bullet and DO it! Take the chance that your decision is the right one.

Of course, I may feel that way only because I'm a true believer!

Scary stuff, huh?

 

  • As a native Ohian, Garl, I'm interested in the 3C proposal.  Your blog post is too long for me to give it a thorough scrubbing, but I'll respond here to two points:  You pose the question whether the opponents ever can be satisfied.  You're getting there, my friend.  No, they never can be satisfied, and for a couple of reasons at least.  One, there must be public subsidies of all such services and the opponents bitterly oppose public subsidies.  That's ideological, but who says ideologues don't have a right to their opinions?  Second, you raise the "it works everywhere but here" argument.  Well, it doesn't work everywhere.  In fact it doesn't work anywhere.  All passenger rail service throughout the world is subsidized to one degree or another.  The difference is that in much of the world, rail passenger service (high-, higher-, or slow-speed) is subsidized and is seen as a public service.  The Cato Institute ideologues never will come around for the simple reason that that's not what ideologues do.  

    Now, let's consider feasibility studies for just a moment.  Amtrak, as a party at interest, should not be performing such studies.  The state should have hired a reputable consultant and conducted its business with some transparency.  

    Finally, for now, let's remain rational.  This is not a debate about more or better passenger rail service.  Nor is it a debate between rail advocates and ideologues. It is a debate about spending taxpayer money on education, housing, health, defense, and the myriad other things government does with our money.  Reasonable people, and believe me, there are many, can disagree on how tax money should be spent.  If transportation, and rail in particular, cannot make a really good case, with hard data, that the money will be better spent on transportation, then it won't get the money.  It's just that simple.

  • I hate to get into discussions about what Government ought to do, because they have more tangential exits than the bowl tracks in a humpyard. The citizens of Ohio once had the three C (maybe better called the Big 4) and there was plenty of passenger traffic for the NYC in that corridor. It died because, the auto was not only more convenient, but ultimately faster on the short legs and the (highly subsidized) airlines were faster on the long stretches.

      So lets look at the new Beijing to Shanghai route (800 miles-not kilometers) with its scheduled running time of 4 hr 15 min.  That is 200+ MPH. The line opens later this year, ahead of time and under budget.

      If A E Perlman could have run trains at that speed it would have saved the airlines (who have lost more money in the last 5 years that they made in their entire history) a big bag of money, not to mention the stockholders, and the Federal Government. Since the passenger service at that time accounted for about 50% of NYC Revenue, The effect on the Central's bottom line would have been salutory as well.  Ever notice we privatize profitable businesses and nationalize losers?  Banks? another tangent!

      Anyway, the Chinese will have the same convenience on a Chicago to New York City sized operation as we achieved between those cities with the airlines and plenty government cash. But the Chinese will not have the holes that are definitely present in the airlines boat. I assure you, air service is much worse now than in the bad old days of government interference, and it is deteriorating daily.  

      That the whole airline show was really done to have a large pool of aircraft and related skillsets in order to support the military Is, for our discussion, beside the point (though for Mess'rs Eisenhower and Truman  it WAS the point.

    Today the manufacturing and operating skillsets for remotely piloted drones eliminate the former strong incentive to grow air travel, and if we are to have travel convenience equal to that of the airlines of say fifteen years ago, without the losses and deteriorated service we see today we will need somethng like what the chinese are doing, (and they are not doing it only on the line mentioned).

      We will soon be able to buy total high speed electric rail systems from China, on a turnnkey basis if we want to, and if we don't others will.  Good for China; maybe not so good for us!

    There was of course a time when the world would have purchased such systems from us, but sadly, that ship seems to have sailed, while we were busy arguing about socialism, motherhood, the flag and whether we needed an automobile industry.

    If we could get behind a 200 MPH system on its own (minimally graded) rails inside the right of way fences of existing lines, we probably should do so and dam quick.

  • Intgeresting points all, Tom.  So solid that I have no quibbles or anything else to offer, except for the part about airlines, and that's probably not an appropriate subject for this blog.  Nice job.