In search of the temperate zealot

Well, the anti-tax zealots are at it again, with their weapons focused (as is so often the case) upon railway technology.

[You know, I've often wondered where all our Libertarian friends were hiding when the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 (a.k.a. the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act) was enacted. Hmmm...]

This time, their target is North Carolina, whose progressive railroad transport achievements - including freight and passenger infrastructure improvements, grade separation efforts, corridor preservation activities and the like - are not only admirable, but worthy of emulation.

A recently drafted budget bill, if passed, would require North Carolina's Department of Transportation to seek legislative permission prior to accepting any federal money which, in turn, might obligate the state to spend in excess of five million dollars on a given railway project. This politically motivated impediment specifically includes both capital expenses and annual operating costs.

Furthermore, the proposed bill would reverse a decision by the state's General Assembly, enacted only last year, instructing their D.O.T. to give "preferential treatment" to rail-based initiatives.

This action, of course, could undermine all sorts of N.C.D.O.T. Rail Division plans; however, it's pretty obvious that the proposal's ultimate goal is to decimate North Carolina's burgeoning intercity passenger train network.

The ringleader behind these shenanigans is one Ric Killian, a Republican Representative from Mecklenburg. He has decided that railroad projects, especially those of the passenger variety, are a "waste of money." According to him, the state needs to "concentrate its resources on roadwork."

Just last month, he informed fellow members of North Carolina's House Transportation Committee that, in his world, roads will always come first. "Once [our] road system is completed," he said, "then we can have the discussion about whether to have rail or high-speed rail...as an amenity."

Naturally, the fact that a "road system" is never "completed" plays in his favour.

Thankfully, some other elected officials in the General Assembly are calling Representative Killian's hand. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat from Guilford, questioned his logic. "What are we going to do next, after we build all the roads, all the loops and all the things we do for cars, and the next thing we know we've got gas at $6.00 a gallon?"

So far, Mr. Killian hasn't responded.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly), Killian "represents" a district whose residents voted in 2007, by a margin of almost two-to-one, to retain the local-option tax which finances Charlotte's LYNX rail transit system, despite political pressure for its repeal.

Ostensibly, it isn't ideology which drives Mr. Killian; rather, it's his desire to relieve constituents of an undue "financial burden." Still unexplained, however, is his mode-specific concern. After all, if train expenditures should automatically be subjected to harsh scrutiny, why not review all the bills taxpayer's are required to cover, including those for seemingly endless road-, air- and waterway projects?

[By the way, just for the record: in 2010, North Carolina's intercity passenger operations covered an enviable SEVENTY NINE PERCENT of their total operating costs directly from the fare box.]

In theory, it is also fiscal responsibility that motivates Governor Rick Scott of Florida...a man who continually undermines SunRail's progress - and whose general council, Charles Tripp, "materially misrepresented facts" when appearing before Florida's Supreme Court during Scott's successful fight to kill phase one of the state's planned H.S.R. system (and, thereby, the entire project).

In theory, it is also fiscal responsibility that motivates Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin...whose actions cost state residents millions of dollars - and the city of Milwaukee its new Talgo plant (along with its jobs and taxes) - when he abruptly canceled construction of a fully-funded intercity line designed to connect Amtrak's existing (and highly successful) Hiawatha service with Madison.

In theory, it is also fiscal responsibility that motivates Governor John Kasich of Ohio...whose efforts destroyed the "Ohio Hub" (3C) - a proposal which would have done as much for freight operations as for passenger - and whose elimination of the state's share of Cincinnati's streetcar plan (known as the Ohio D.O.T.'s "highest-ranking project") amounted to fifty three percent of his total statewide transportation cuts.

Our own Larry Kaufman, in his recent essay entitled "Purchase premium?," asked if anyone cared "to discuss why railroads invariably are treated differently than...other industries?"

To me, that's an example of the proverbial "sixty-four dollar question"!

I, too, have often wondered why our railroads were practically regulated out of existence; why, even now, the industry garners so little respect; why trains often seem invisible - until a derailment involving hazardous chemicals makes the front page, or a driver gets caught at a grade crossing when running late for work.

I also wonder what it is about passenger train service which seems to encourage so much talk of financial responsibility from so many political "leaders," when it's those same people who all too willingly ignore and/or forgive far more outrageous (and indefensible) examples of the taxpayer's largesse.

For once, I stand with Ray LaHood. Responding to the matters in North Carolina, he said these federal grants to state D.O.T.s "will improve passenger rail service..., while preserving the world-class freight rail system we have today."

That's a worthy goal, both future-minded and fiscally prudent. I trust its intrinsic value will become increasingly evident as the days pass.

In the meantime, the concept of transportation equity would certainly go a long way.

I wish more of our elected officials understood the power of wise investments. I accept (and, in a way, honestly appreciate) restrained governmental spending; however, it is patently unjust to force a small part of society to bear an oversized financial burden, while allowing others a free pass. A level playing field and a uniform set of game rules would surely help.

No money for trains? Fine; then we'll allocate none for the continued support of our drive-or-fly culture.

Want to be a tax-cutting extremist? Cut away, brother! Just be sure to include all your own pet projects in the bloodletting.

Too extreme? Well, the Roman playwright Terence once advised, "Moderation in all things." Perhaps that idea is a major part of the answer.

As wonderful as phrases like "low taxes" and "small government" may sound to some, there are still certain essential functions best left to publicly operated, publicly supported agencies.

A balanced, temperate approach to governmental services may even bring us an unexpected level of efficiency! It would certainly be far more principled.

Wow! Fair; uniform; equitable; prudent; efficient; moderate; balanced; temperate; principled? Strong, fresh, alluring words! Words for us all to live by - even the anti-tax zealots.

It would be nice, wouldn't it?!



  • You asked a super question, Garl, when you asked where were the libertarians when the Highway Act was passed in 1956.  Perhaps the gutless wonders who consider themselves libertarians should run as such.  That is, run as libertarians with the party label on the ballot.  We'd soon learn just how much American voters believe in libertarianism.  As it is, they run as Republicans in almost all cases, and rely on the acceptability of the GOP to help put them into office.  

    Mecklenberg just happens to be the county in which Charlotte is located.  It's normally a pretty progressive place, even when it has Republicans running things or representing it in Congress.  As for the clown who has decided the federal grants for passenger service are a waste of money; what arrogance!  What is his background that enables him to make such a stupid statement?  

  • The railroad contractors need to play dirty like there Highway Contractors. What will it take to buy off guys like Mr. Ric Killian? I say a good case of 20 year Irish whiskey and a Hot Redhead. Anyone else want to up the ante?

  • "steam," your spelling and grammar still are atrocious.  Would you be so kind as to explain how highway contractors "play dirty"?  Or, are you just making up words?

  • Cut and run.  That's really waht steamtrain6868 does.  He posts a blog or comment that is preposterous, and then when challenged to defend his views, just cuts and runs, never more to be heard from until his next silly posting.  Is this a personal attack on steamtrain6868?  Some may consider it so.  I prefer to think of it as holding the guys' feet to the fire.

  • From my understanding, part of the motivation and selling pitch with the original interstate system was related to its ability to facilitate national defense mobilization. (That's the reason most of the original interstate system was constructed of concrete as opposed to asphalt).  The GOP is against all forms of government spending except that which they consider to be part of national defense.  Perhaps it's time to consider marketing intercity-passenger rail from the national defense perspective.  An elaborate and efficient intercity  passenger rail network would facilitate large scale evacuations.

  • Good points, Blaine.  Those who are old enough to remember, will recall that the Interstate System was named the Interstate and Defense Highway System, and was much more expensive to build and maintain because it was overbuilt for purely civilian use.  Pavement is thicker, overpasses are higher and rights-of-way are wider than would have been funded for normal highway construction.  Much of that was the result of the political debate over whether there even should be such a system.  The defense argument sold it.  There also was a bitter lobbying war over concrete vs. asphalt.  It is my understanding that asphalt could have provided the quality of payment demanded, so I'm left with the conclusion that, like so much in our society, it was a political battle between interests and the concrete folks won.  Just that simple.  

  • LK>"Good points, Blaine.  Those who are old enough to remember, will recall that the Interstate System was named the Interstate and Defense Highway System, and was much more expensive to build and maintain because it was overbuilt for purely civilian use. "

    Well, actually, no.  Slightly more expensive to build, but cheaper, potentially, to maintain, and the defense aspect of it is a lot smaller than many realize.

    "Defense" plays into the interstates several ways.  One was a a limited number of "defense highways," mostly spurs, that led to areas with very, very, limited civilian traffic.  Those roads are a tiny portion of the total, but that's how the word "defense" originally snuck into the name.

    The next was - and is- that while there is real interplay between AASHTO and AREA/AREMA and the military over transportability standards the civilian side usually dominates.  We size military equipment, by and large, to fit on existing roads, railcars, bridges, and so forth; we have to, because we don't get to tell potential enemies or allies how to build their infrastructure, and we aren't planning to fight on US soil if we can help it.  Also, ergonomics puts on some constraints, too, and much more so for stuff that might need to be worked on in the field.

    Another, and by far the largest, defense needs were politically justifiable to both parties.  The basic federal plans for what became the interstate system go back, with minor alterations, to the tail end of the Good Roads Movement.  The old AAA national road map and the Pershing map overlapped considerably.  The same road system, roughly, was pushed to grangers in the 90s, as a preparedness/defense measure in WWI, as a spur to business in the '20s, as economic stimulus (aimed mostly at labor) in the '30s, and, and as Defense again in the 50's.  What is telling, though is that actual highway traffic dropped in WWII; long-haul shifted overwhelmingly to rail.  Rail is still dominant for ammunition shipment to this day.

    Finally, Eisenhower himself was a person of his times, and that unfortunately included a degree of bias against railroads, as did some of his administration - Engine Charlie was the Secretary of Defense, remember.  Eisenhower participated in the cross-country road convoy in 1919, and was strangely impressed by the autobahns, which, if you think about it, weren't doing so much for Germany if he was driving on them.  The only time (consider that one for a bit, road advocates) that rail was effectively crippled in theater, Allied movement slowed to a crawl, despite desperate innovations like the "Red Ball Express."

    Nonetheless, Eisenhower never quite shook the idea that railroads were obsolescent monopolies, and acted accordingly.  He also was painfully aware of the likely consequences of too sudden a constriction of wartime spending.  Without the Interstate program, a goodly chunk of Federal revenue would stop - the gasoline tax was largely a WWII emergency measure-  just as production from the Korean War was winding down.  The "New Look" military, which was drastically reducing active duty and federal civil service jobs, was another deflationary pressure.

    Some think that the desire to move more of the population into the suburbs as a covert form of dispersal played into it, but there appears to be no evidence that was initially the case.

    LK>Pavement is thicker, overpasses are higher and rights-of-way are wider than would have been funded for normal highway construction.

    Not really.  As with railroads, it's a question of balancing maintenance with initial costs.  WWI and WWII had both shown the dangers of letting too much deferred maintenance pile up, for roads as much as railroads, and that undoubtedly played into it, but the design standards were based on civilian speeds, not military.  If you want individually controlled vehicles moving at 70 mph, you need a lot of sight distance, and that means wide bridges and gradual curves.

    LK> "Much of that was the result of the political debate over whether there even should be such a system.  The defense argument sold it."

    Yup, especially within his own party.

    LK> "There also was a bitter lobbying war over concrete vs. asphalt.  It is my understanding that asphalt could have provided the quality of payment demanded, "

    Well, sometimes, and it was sometimes cheaper, but the final cost as built, and the final life-cycle cost of flexible vs rigid pavement varies a lot from place to place, and season to season.  Since the roads were built by individual states, there was another complication; all else equal, the solution that kept the most money in-state was preferred.

    In fact, the system as built is about half flexible pavement (asphalt) and about half rigid (concrete) or composite (asphalt over concrete).

    LK>"so I'm left with the conclusion that, like so much in our society, it was a political battle between interests and the concrete folks won.  Just that simple. "

    More to it than that for the decision, but that certainly describes the reasons for a lot of the squabbling.  "...The highways of America are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock, or concrete."   (Carl G. Fisher.)

  • Since it is no longer financially feasible to maintain approximately 16 million linear miles of 'public roadway'...

    Since much of the roadway & bridges is in poor condition, since funding is inadequate for adequate maintenance or repairs...

    Since the US debt ceiling is close at hand...

    Since OIL imports are costing the USA approx$2 billion/day...

    America's Railroads will be called on again to save the Nation...get it back on track======================

    LIBERTARIAN/TEA PARTY ZEALOTS AND CONVICT RAIL-TRACK GANGS hard at work...swingin those sledges...

    The guys with the biggest blisters on their hands get considered for FOREMAN positions.

    CATOPEC INSTITUTE chefs hired for rail-track-gang catering...

    BOX-SLEEPER-CAR bunks to be outfitted with the latest in sleeping comfort: the new TRUMP mattress---WOW!

  • Railwayist is back to simple sillyness, I see.  Just for the record, none of the grim things he states above are preordained.  Highways can be properly maintained.  It just takes money.  Taxes can be raised; it's Republican dogma that says they never should be increased.  OK, if that's your belief system, stop whining about poorly maintained roads.  As for debt ceilings, we shouldn't even have a statutory ceiling.  The real debt ceiling will be the point at which buyers will not wish to purchase USG debt at market rates.  Do not fall for the simplistic rhetoric of people who use it to peddle simplistic ideas.