Isakson Reaches Across Aisle

No, not that.

Not that one either.

This time, it’s for regional high speed train service:

Undeterred, Isakson is about to reach across the aisle again, this time to John Kerry, the Democrat from Boston. The purpose: A revival of this country’s rail system, which — with luck — could give birth to a high-speed passenger train that would careen from Birmingham, through Atlanta, to Washington.

Before “the base” starts screaming about never ending subsidies, note the business model that underlies the concept:

Isakson said the bill would fundamentally alter our method of capitalizing rail transportation, putting it on a footing similar to the way we fund airports, freeways and seaports. Governments, a combination of state and federal, would acquire the right-of-way and build tracks. User fees would pay for upkeep, levied by private rail corporations that would live or die on their own performance.

I would just like to see some kind of “regional protection” placed on this bill, where “high growth” regions get a bigger share of the funding.  I’m tired of the negative growth northeast getting all the big dig dollars while we remain stuck in gridlock as victims of our own success.

49 comments

  1. odinseye2k says:

    An interesting thought. My spin on this idea was to have the gov’t fund the rails and then have private careers buy cars and run the routes of interest.

    Kind of like with airways and roads.

    Of course, many European lines are kind of public/private bastardizations. I think Deutsche Bahn is something like 51% state and 49% private owned.

  2. Doug Deal says:

    People of Peach Pundit, I introduce to you, Icarus, Big Government Republican.

    This is the second big government plan from Isakson you have been behind. He isn’t your uncle is he? For those that have forgotten, the other was the Great Mortgage Giveaway debacle.

    Rail does not work well in the US bacause we don’t live on top of each other like roaches. It works in NY because they do. Maybe when they build a rail system where you can bring your car along, they might have something.

    I would love there to be a working rail system, and might actually use it, as I hate what homeland security paranoia has done to air travel, but it will be too expensive to connect such long distance together.

    Think about it this way. France is about the size of Texas, but has 65 million people. It has a population density over 3 times that of Texas, and about 10 times that of the rest of the US. Thats a lot of space between population centers, a lot of track to maintain, a lot of bridges to build and a long time spent on a train to go from place to place.

  3. I would personally love a rail system. I also think it has potential to work in very limited situations. Being able to go from Macon to San Francisco will never be a reality by rail. Going from Atlanta to D.C. via high-speed may work, but certainly has more potential than criss-crossing the country would.

    I wonder how much money this would bring to Georgia, that could be the very reason Isakson is supporting it – I can’t think of many other reasons to tolerate Senator Kerry for long peroids of time.

  4. midtown_maven says:

    It is 600 miles on the Cresent route. Checking the ole web schedule.

    It currently leaves DC at 6:30 PM and arrives at 9:00 A.M. Which is longer than it takes to fly to London. It’s just as bad going back.

    The train would have to leave in the morning or other decent time, and get you there before 9:00 P.M to make it worth the trouble.
    So we are talking 150+ MPH with a stop in Charlotte and maybe one other place.

    Make it so Number One, and I’ll be on it.

  5. Doug Deal says:

    Harry,

    The NE cooridor would probably have enough demand to be successful. If it is just some stupid idea to spend loads on money connecting the sparsely populated regions of the country so that no one has to put at risk capital in NE, then it is foolish.

  6. Harry says:

    Yes agreed, high-speed rail would perhaps make sense in the Northeast corridor, but elsewhere would be a fiscal disaster. Legislation involving federal transportation money should be dispersed on a more or less equal regional basis per capita. If high-speed rail is a regional objective in the NE, then let other NE regional infrastructure take the hit. It’s only fair. I doubt Kerry has any such reasonable idea of equality in mind. It smells to me like an inside or quid pro quo deal. The no-growth NE is getting a more than lion’s share of federal dollars lately for one “good reason” or another – be it Bear Stearns bailouts, Big Digs, 9-11 recovery, failing to decommission unneeded “Historic” sub bases, etc.

    It’d be sure good to know Isakson’s thinking if he’s a sponsor of this high-speed railroad improvement. It’d be good for him to explain why railroad companies couldn’t make the investment without federal subsidy, since they’re doing so well from all the increase in freight business; otherwise all that freight would need to be side-lined in order to accommodate pols commuting on high-speed rail to Dover, Baltimore, Philly, NY, and Boston. They should do it for the goodwill.

  7. The only place I can see in the Constitution authorizing the federal government to spend money on roads is Article I, Section 8(g): “To establish post offices and post roads”.

    I’ve turned the document every angle I can think of, and can’t make “pay for high-speed rail” fit in there anywhere, even if “high growth” regions get a bigger share of the (unconstitutional) funding.

    And unless you’re a Socialist Democrat, don’t bother answering with “we’ve always done it this way” or some nonsense about “implied powers” or the “commerce clause”. Puh-lease.

  8. Three Jack says:

    how does one know when either of georgia’s senators ‘reach across the aisle’. seems they spend most of their time on that other side.

  9. “Isakson Reaches Across Aisle” with one hand and into your back pocket with the other. This is a trick he learned from Saxby. Johnny Boy, don’t forget to talk about guns and/ or religon while you’re doing it… or they might suspect you’re a liberal.

  10. Progressive Dem says:

    The U.S. needs to invest in high speed rail, but I’m not convinced Atl to DC is the best route to invest in. It makes incredible sense for Boston to Richmond, partially because of the concentration of population, but also because rail can outperform the airlines. Getting to airports, parking the car, going through security and then reversing the process eats up a lot of time. Train travel is often less complicated and more efficient for short distances than air travel.

    I think we need better rail service from Atl to Savannah, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Birmingham, and Chattanooga. Those cities are a little too far to drive and too close to fly, and I think this is analogous to the northeast. As the airlines continue to reduce service, smaller cities will see their air service options decline. High speed rail could fill the gap. It also has the potential of remaking and reinforcing Atlanta into a regional business center for the southeast. Hartsfield-Jackson would continue to be a valuable asset and the economy of the participating cities would become more regional and less metropolitan. While the southeastern cities will never have the concentration of people the northeast has, the southeast cities are growing and there is potential growth in ridership.

  11. slyram says:

    Senator Isakson, like Rep. Bishop, is a naturally cooperative person. We have to remember that during his time in the Georgia General Assembly and other state government positions he was the Dem Teams favorite Republican because of his cool style.

    When he was in congress, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume use to say “we have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, just permanent interest.”

  12. Progressive Dem says:

    The GOP should be careful in discussing deficit financing. I recall Bill left the White House with a stained dress, but a balanced budget. We put this Iraq war on a credit card.

  13. OleDirtyBarrister says:

    Progressive Dem:

    Clinton never had an actual balanced budget, and that is a fact that you lefties love to ignore. What he had as a whitewashed, unrealistic pro forma balanced budget that never materialized due to specious accounting and revenue shortfalls. There was no balanced budget, and no surplus, just good talk.

  14. OleDirtyBarrister says:

    I think that we should finance a fine rail corridor in the northeastern U.S. And then we should force all of the yankees that have transplanted here and afflicted us with their presence and sullied our communities to go back up north and ride it.

  15. Icarus says:

    Just because the rail corridor is proposed from Birmingham to D.C. doesn’t mean that it would be the most effective transit means between those two points.

    It would, however, make a few good options for Atlanta-Birmingham, Atlanta-Greenville/Spartanberg, or Atlanta-Charlotte.

    As noted in the article, it is designed as a spine, which would then allow for Atlanta-Chattanooga/Macon/Savannah or other short run points.

    Numerous publications have named the I-85 corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte as the highest projected growth area for the next two decades. Why not put infrastructure in place now before the density makes it even more expensive? It’s already too much of a hassle to fly between these points.

    As for the funding, it mentions $200Bn in BONDS, which are usually repaid in user fees. There are projects, often referred to as natural monopolits, where the federal government can have a postive effect because it can cultivate things that are too large for private investment, and don’t lend themselves to competition.

  16. Harry says:

    Icarus,

    Do you really think this is a sound idea that will be paid out of operating revenues? I don’t — not by a long shot. I thought you and Johnny Isakson were smarter than this.

  17. Harry says:

    There is no rationale that can justify spending $400 billion on this boondoggle. You know if they say $200 billion it will be $400 billion by the time it’s finished. No cost-benefit analysis will support this. I voted for Johnny in his primary and general election campaign. It’s unbelievable if he really supports such waste.

  18. Icarus says:

    Never underestimate my own stupidity, but I respect Isakson’s intellect very much.

    I think the operating expenses can be paid by users, in as much as air travel or interstates are. Transportation is subsidized by governmnet in every form, here and all over the globe.

    I think the approach where the government funds the infrastructure, and the users pay operating fees is sound and has precedent. If they have a model where the infrastructure can also be repaid (thus the issuance of bonds), so much the better.

  19. midtown_maven says:

    Add Atlanta to Orlando as a viable route.

    Texas tried very hard to setup a Dallas, Ft, Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio sytem.
    California is trying to make it happen with state bonds.
    Read here if you like
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_High_Speed_Rail

    It is very difficult to get through the all the federal, municipal and state regulations, complaints. Much better for one or two governors to try to work out a system without going federal.

  20. Harry says:

    Icarus,

    With any mode you have to look at the cost per mile. Let’s say there are 20 high-speed trains and they get a total of 5,000 passengers riding an average of 500 miles per day. That’s 2.5 million passenger miles per day, or 912.5 million passenger miles per year. Let’s say the improvements have an average lifespan of 20 years, so that’s 18.25 billion passenger miles. $400 billion (including debt service) divided by 18.25 billion is $22 per passenger mile just for debt service on the improvements, not even including operating expenses. Operating expenses will be heavy because we’re talking government workers.

    Now, let’s say it costs you 50 cents a mile to operate your vehicle, an 2 people ride so it’s 25 cents per passenger mile, and the government spends another 50 cents a mile to maintain the roads for both of you. So, 50 cents total per passenger mile is what it costs to move you by automobile. Quite a difference, isn’t it?

  21. Transportation is subsidized by governmnet in every form, here and all over the globe.

    So? What makes it right to do?

    I keep looking through my copy of the Constitution… nope, still can’t find that Article/Section/Subsection…

    But who cares, right? Constitution, shmonstitution. Pass me another roll of 100-millions.

  22. Icarus says:

    Harry,

    I took an urban econ course once where the costs of various forms of public transit were analyzed. The professor claimed that bus systems were the most cost effective method of transit if you were starting a new system, with rail second, and private cars third. He then added that if rail systems were already in place, then rail was much cheaper, but the upfront cost of the infrastructure made it cost prohibitive.

    I asked the dumb question of how long the costs of the rail infrastructure were amortized in the study. He didn’t know, and was annoyed by the question. After a few minutes of arguing, he told me to forget it, and just know for the test that buses were cheaper.

    My point is, in your example, you are using 20 years. I think even Marta uses 30 or 40. The Boston Subway (I think our nation’s oldest) still has tracks in operation that were built in 1897, and is still going strong.

    Given the cost of the Big Dig, do you think it would be cost effective to start this as a new system today? Do you believe that Boston is a better city with the subway than it would be without it?

  23. The way the article reads, and the way I am interpreting it until I see another source, has Isakson basically wanting to flip the numbers of the airline industry and Amtrak/rail system. I naddition to basically reinventing the rail system to further make it more free market.

    Not sure how well that could/would work. Ideally it would be fine, but things rarely work ideally. I personally love riding on trains, even the slow ones – but if this is going to be more of the same, then whats the point? We already have Amtrak – but I think if you approached the rail system from the right perspective and sought new forms of power that would reduce the inherent cost of use, then I think you might could have something worthwhile.

  24. Harry says:

    Icarus,

    The problem with using more than 20 year amortization is that everything is wasting rapidly — equipment, computers, rolling stock, rails, rail beds — and has to be replaced or upgraded on I would posit a 20 year cycle. Maybe there’s some land acquisition. But even so, my point is that a high-speed rail system would remove only a minuscule fraction of travelers from planes and autos, and at a far greater cost per passenger mile.

  25. gt7348b says:

    Just to add a little fact to this amortization discussion: Average bus life is 12 years with a full rehab of half a bus cost at 7 years and average length of rail car life is 30 years with rehab at 20. That is average – most current buses are not usually capable of exceeding a 12 year life span, while MARTA’s current 1979 rehab cars will probably last another 20 years, meaning we’re getting a 50 life out of them.

    Additional fodder for thought for Taft Republican – where in the Constitution does it say “Interstate Highway System.” ? It says “Post Roads” which in the 1790s meant toll roads.

    As for air travel/rail travel, rail seems best suited to journeys of 400-500 miles or less and air for 500+. And air journeys of <500 miles are usually the most expensive to provide (i.e. Jacksonville, Charlotte, Albany, Savannah), which is why when the new High Speed Line to Strasbourg at operating commercial speeds of 200+ mph, Air France dropped its flights to Metz and Strasbourg and reassigned them to the more profitable slots at CDG to Reunion, Dakar, and St. Martin. We subsidize air and roads, either subsidize rail at the same level to eliminate the market distortion or subsidize none.

  26. Harry says:

    1) The existing rails are mostly privately owned.

    2) I was attempting to make the point that high-speed rail would need be subsidized at a far higher cost per passenger mile than both private and public cost components of vehicle transportation. We can discuss assumptions, but the overall difference is so massive that tweaking the assumptions isn’t going to change the reality.

    3) Follow the money.

  27. Additional fodder for thought for Taft Republican – where in the Constitution does it say “Interstate Highway System.” ? It says “Post Roads” which in the 1790s meant toll roads.

    It doesn’t. But who cares whether what the Congress does is Constitutional, right?

    The IHS may actually be argued to be consistent with Article I, Section 8(g); however, that was not put forth as its raison d’être, which was to have a means of transporting troops and missiles quickly in a war with the USSR.

  28. Doug Deal says:

    I am all for a limited Federal government interpretation of the Constitution, however, INTERSTATE highways seem like they could be one of the few things that fall under the commerce clause. Plus, they were originally built for national security reasons, so there is further argument there.

    Commerce clause:

    To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;

    Elastic Clause:

    To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

    Post Roads Clause:

    To establish post offices and post roads;

    A post road is any road used for the transportation of mail. The IHS is critical to this function.

    If you are going to criticize a function of government, try to stick to the 99.5 percent that are actually un-Constitutional.

  29. Doug, be careful not to fall into the trap of the Elastic Clause, which Congress has used to impose the 99.5% unconstitutional “functions of government” that we now labor under.

    Give them an inch, and they’ll take your wallet. And your house. And your rights and liberties.

    “Regulating” interstate commerce hardly implies spending billions of forcibly removed taxpayer dollars on highways.

    And if you’re going for “post road” as meaning ANY road used for the transportation of mail… then the federal government has the responsibility to build and maintain every single road in the entire country, since nearly EVERYONE gets mail delivered right to their doorstep (or at least the end of their driveway). Surely you’re not saying that? Because the statists will take that inch you give them, and run with it — quite far, in fact.

  30. Doug Deal says:

    Taft,

    I do not like the elastic clause, but in conjunction with the post road clause as well as the interstate commerce clause, I think it clearly gives the Federal government the power to build them.

    But the whether the Feds can (which they clearly can) and should build roads are two different arguments. I was addressing only the first.

  31. Doug, the Feds can do whatever the heck they want, as they’ve proven time and again. There is no need to address that argument. It is the should argument that needs to be addressed, in order to reduce the likelihood of will. Which is why the Constitution was written in the first place.

  32. Icarus says:

    All things not reserved for the federal government are within the rights of the states. Go Fish is pure Georgia. ergo, constitutional. Win!

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