Compare 360 million dollars to completely modernize rail lines connecting Boston, Springfield, New Haven, and Montreal to 200 million dollars to temporarily repair a one mile stretch of viaduct on Interstate 91 in Springfield while a 400 million to a billion dollar “long term” fix is contemplated. This isn’t an apples to apples comparison in terms of current demand as the interstate highway transports millions of people every month, and the rail lines see occasional passenger use counted in the single digits of trains per day.
Contemplating Naseem Taleb’s ideas on resilience and fragility however, it certainly appears that the old technology of steel on steel simply lasts longer and requires less maintenance than the rubber on asphalt highway system. Locomotives also use a fraction of the energy to move the same number of passengers. As energy efficiency becomes increasingly important in a world of diminishing resources and environmental degradation it’s clear that trains should play a larger role in our transportation system.
Beyond the initial shock that an entire system could be reinvigorated for less than the cost of repairing one short stretch of highway, it’s the response of the general public which I find astounding. Comments on news boards, talk radio, and news editorials seem to view every dollar spent on rail as nothing but a dollar not spent on roads. This seems to be spurred on mostly by the belief that gas taxes completely fund our roadways, i.e. there is no subsidy, and that rail service, by comparison, will disproportionately demand constant funding. The fact that the private automobile is the most subsidized form of transport in history, not just from the perspective of road construction and maintenance, but in terms of government imposed requirements for parking minimums and the premium more productive land use typologies pay to make car centered development seem sustainable, is something the average American does not understand and free market fundamentalists would rather not hear.
Breaking through that mindset is not something that a reasonable person should expect to see happen in the short term. Motivated reasoning creates a powerful barrier, or to slightly alter the comments of Upton Sinclair: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his lifestyle depends upon his not understanding it.” In the short term the only way forward is to sell insistent happy motorists on the idea that improved passenger rail will take thousands of “others’ cars” off “their roads” when they want to drive on them.