Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Shut down the Rail Study

If this is what the Legislature had in mind, they should have just asked Big Rail what they want. Michael Fischer of Cambridge Systematics, the Transportation Commission's consultant on the million dollar plus statewide rail study, gave his first report Tuesday. Consultant speak hung from like cobwebs in the room by the time he was done. (Quite a contrast from Doug MacDonald, Transpo Secretary, in the morning. MacDonald speaks like Barney Frank, to the point, with flavor, perspective and weight.)

It was clear even in this early look that the strategic interests of Washington in passenger transport and in getting freight off freeways would be victims in the ultimate report of too many trees in front of the forest.

Capacity is the problem. Everybody knows it. For one reason or another the consolidation of the railroads in the 80s and 90s was followed by a reduction of capacity in the West. Now, strangely, railroads are able to raise rates for the first time in decades. What we heard Tuesday was a screen shot of the current situation portrayed as a culmination of the inevitable. Some unnamed natural law (perhaps the market) justifies the obsession of Class 1 railroads with intermodal cargo and commodities, trade goods. This obsession bypasses Washington and its transportation needs on its way from Asia to the Midwest and vice versa.

We are being prepared for winners and losers, and the state will be told at the end of the day that only a few of the short lines are "strategically positioned" to survive, and that the economics of standardization makes intermodal traffic the highest priority. Handling individual cars is a thing of the past, and so on.

Phooey. We need the big view. We can't let the railroads use restricted capacity as an excuse to jack up rates the way Oil has used reduced refinery capacity to jack up gas prices, or force traffic off rail onto the roads to make room for container trains and grain trains. The state needs to see what $5 billion, or even $10 billion, over ten years will buy in terms of capacity -- particularly passenger capacity and short-haul. If Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific are not interested in infrastructure, the state has got to get interested.

The freeway system simply cannot absorb the growth projected for it. If for the cost of retrofitting a single HOV lane onto I-5 we could lay hundreds of miles of track and add facilities I don't even know what are to make rail work smoothly, we need to do it.

Rail is clean, it is reasonably cheap to build, it is low maintenance, and it would extend the life of the road system immeasurably to shift freight from trucks to trains. The I-5 corridor is either first or second in terms of freight in the nation. Each semi causes 16,000 times as much wear on the roadway as a car. Funding rail is attractive, because it is easy to toll the users. (Which is not to say gains to the environment and savings on the freeways shouldn't generate some financial reward to rail, just that a revenue stream other than taxes would look good to bond buyers.)

But none of this is even a blip on the radar of the report as it is being laid out. The analytical tools we're being shown are tweezers, when the proper scope requires fork lifts. We don't have time for an exercise in mediocrity. Incremental improvement is fine, so long as the increments are substantial. If we're going to talk winners and losers, let's make shippers and the state partners on the winning side. Or at least see if it's possible. The Legislature or the Commission needs to shut down this study until it gets into the ballpark with regard to scale and perspective.

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