Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lets Walk Before We Run

Lexington, as well as the rest of America, still has a problem coming to grips with the idea of mass transit. We want to run before we have relearned the simple steps of walking the mass transit walk.

America began dismantling their urban rail (streetcars and interurban/regional rail) facilities right at the beginnings of a time when we needed them most, the middle of the Great Depression. Then, right after the Second World War, while Europe was rebuilding their rail infrastructure with a lot of Allied help, we started to remove our intercity passenger rail. The concept of the Interstate Highway System would soon allow interstate trucking to grow while the railroad unions, in an effort to preserve jobs, did a number on the freight rail service. Our eggs were just about all in one basket.

Europe on the other hand, took our assistance and rebuilt their streetcars, their intercity rail and by the "60s began to think of a higher speed rail system. Japan made similar decisions with similar results. In other words, they took the simple steps of fixing a broken body, learned to walk again, then running and then took off racing. A story not too different from that of Red Pollard and Seabiscuit.

The simple fact is that both Europe and Japan (and now China and others) have discovered that the answer of mass transit is in a balanced approach of all modes interconnecting to become one system. Only a handful of East Coast American cities have tried to follow this approach and most of them are facing rising fares due to failing to complete all possible connections. The Federal agency charged with assisting this complete approach has, for the past 50 years, done a poor job.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which one would assume, should coordinate all the transportation facilities across the nation(pedestrian, bicycle, auto, trucking, rail and aviation) into one system, funded at the State and local level and by private industry, instead has become the primary provider of funding amid massive political wrangling. It used to be, in the days of the "rugged individualist", that roads and railroads were built by the people who wanted to get somewhere. Now these "creative class" folks are waiting for someone else to build their roads for them. The idea of going the route of private toll roads (a free market system) is abhorrent to most people now that freeways and the lure of the open road has been let out of the bag.

Most people in America, outside of the larger east coast cities, can not remember the days of regularly scheduled passenger train traffic of more than twice a day. I can recall the two daily trips of the George Washington, C&O's remaining service to Lexington, from about 1963 until the creation of Amtrak. One in the morning and one in the evening, with never more than 3 cars and barely any one boarding here in town. There used to be much more traffic than that and there can be again.

I am not here to downplay the need for High Speed Rail but I do want to emphasize that HSR alone is not the cure-all of our transit woes. Let us take the baby steps of local transit and regional service before we cry about not getting a HSR connection

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