A Renaissance on the Rails?

3.13.13 | Two new reports from the Brookings Institution suggest that contrary to conventional punditry, a couple of Obama Administration initiatives to boost regional economic resilience (and coincidentally, the nation’s) are working.

First up, the new relationship between Amtrak and the states to revive and expand passenger rail is doing just that, especially in what Brookings calls “intermetropolitan” trips—those connecting major cities along corridors of 400 miles or less, which carry 83 percent of Amtrak’s passengers. Amtrak’s ridership has exploded since 1997, growing 55.1 percent overall, and more than double the passenger growth rate of airlines, vehicle miles traveled, and even transit trips.

The report, “A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail” (pdf), notes that 87.8 percent of Amtrak’s passengers come from the nation’s 100 largest metro areas (even though 17 of them have no Amtrak service!) and 10 of those alone generate almost two-thirds of all passengers.

After noting Amtrak’s troubled history since its inception in 1971, including constant hostility from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, the report identifies two laws as key turning points:

  • The Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which expires this year unless renewed—anybody care to lay odds on that with this Congress?—forced Amtrak to create performance benchmarks and pushed the states to create passenger rail plans. In many cases, that meant states cooperated on corridor plans between metropolitan regions.
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “altered the political landscape” with the $8 billion it dedicated to high-speed rail. States submitted $102 billion in preliminary (preapplication) plans and $55 billion in final applications; the feds funded 38 projects in 31 states “with most funds flowing to 13 specific corridors.”

The report recommends strengthening those “intermetropolitan” connections by requiring similar federal/state cost-sharing agreements for Amtrak’s long-haul trains (corridors of 750 or more miles), creating a dedicated funding stream for passenger rail investment, refining existing programs “to promote intermodalism, empower broader funding flexibility towards rail activities,” and completing a national rail plan—something all of our economic rivals did decades ago.

(The National Association of Railroad Passengers and the Midwest High Speed Rail Association make the joint case for long-distance trains here.)

Then there are the administration’s regional economic clusters anchored by 15 manufacturing innovation centers where governments, universities, and the private sector can work together solving manufacturing and technology problems and challenges. As Mark Muro notes, “Proliferating under the radar, the Obama administration’s ‘small bore’ regional initiatives in economic development are beginning to add up to something meaningful.”

Finally, a couple of articles worth noting: First, the San Francisco Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius noted last month that “gentrification” is apparently no longer a dirty word.

Over at The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn poses an interesting question: Do Cities Really Want Economic Development? The answer seems obvious, but his conclusion seems just as self-evident:

Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that suggests that consumers reveal their true preferences through the actual purchasing decisions they make. Applying this to public policy, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the real preference of the powers that be in most places is the maintenance of the status quo, not disruptive economic development. It probably also explains why every city obsesses over “talent” publicly, but almost none of them undertake actions that might actually attract it for real.


Photo/ Daniel McLean

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