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Why do gulf coast govs hate passenger trains?


We love bullets but don't tell us about them damned bullet trains!

by Len Bahr, PhD*

Passenger transportation in south Louisiana will doubtless become more problematic over time, as subsidence and sea level rise make highway construction and maintenance increasingly difficult and expensive. Moving people across the gulf coast on trains will eventually become obvious as a highly efficient alternative to either highway or air travel, as well as the most efficient, comfortable, safe and civilized means of getting from here to there and back again.

President Obama and his transportation secretary Ray LaHood share a vision to create a nationwide high-speed passenger rail program that would, in one fell swoop, reduce oil addiction, create jobs, improve air quality and help rejuvenate the US economy. Meanwhile, the current crop of gulf coast governors remain unalterably opposed to passenger rail travel.

In 2009 Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal derailed an application from his state to compete for $110 million in federal stimulus money to reinstate rail service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Governor Rick Scott of Florida recently tore up a federal promissory note for $2.4 billion to pay most of the cost of a high speed rail system that would have connected Orlando with Tampa. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour recently lampooned the President’s push for passenger rail. Here’s a quote:

“What I learned as governor of Mississippi is that `winning the future’…won’t be accomplished through government boondoggles like taxpayer-subsidized high-speed rail or other pet projects…”

He thus joined Jindal and Scott among the growing list of GOP governors around the country who hate passenger rail systems, presumably on the grounds of fiscal prudence and budget cuts. This argument rings very hollow and it flies in the face of economic studies that project major economic development potential for regions that provide efficient passenger rail service.

David Weigel recently posted an essay in Slate Magazine explaining why conservatives hate trains. According to Weigel, the real objection to high speed rail is ideological, not fiscal. Frank Luntz is a campaign consultant to GOP candidates, who apparently coined the term ‘Obamacare’ to deride national health care legislation. I suspect that Luntz will soon add ‘Obamarail’ to his lexicon of administrative put downs.

Beginning around 3 PM on Fat Tuesday, after a glorious day in the French Quarter, I found myself behind the wheel for the mind-numbing eighty+ mile return drive to Baton Rouge, with three fellow Mardi Gras celebrants. For two traffic-choked hours we lamented the fact that we had no choice but to drive, when in a rational world we would be riding in a comfortable coach, legally and safely sipping beverages of our choice.

Our conversation was partly political and partly practical. For example we pondered Ronald Reagan’s iconic reputation among conservatives, which has unfairly overshadowed and obscured the far more tangible legacy of the Gipper’s Republican predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower. After all, it was Ike who, in the name of national security, successfully promoted the interstate highway system in 1956 and fundamentally altered the way most Americans now get around. The little piece of Ike’s highway system on which we rode exemplified how obsolete that system has now become, however, and why our nation desperately needs a modern alternative.

On a practical level, conventional interstate highways cost hundreds of millions of dollars per mile to construct, widen and maintain. Thus we discussed the fact that traditional east-west gulf coast passenger transportation will become ever more problematic as the population swells, sea level rises and America’s Delta (south Louisiana) slips underwater.

We envisioned the slowly passing grassy neutral ground along I-10 as the ideal right-of-way for a new rail system. This huge network of government-owned real estate, which connects all major population centers, was acquired, upgraded and maintained at taxpayer expense…and it remains perpetually vacant and useless. Its potential use as a right of way for passenger rail would obviate the need to compete with existing low speed freight lines and obsolete infrastructure – including an amazing number of dangerous intersections.

We imagined future automobile drivers along the I-10 corridor watching enviously as their fellow travelers whizzed past in high tech, high speed style and comfort, unconcerned about the price of gasoline. The visual reminder of a commuting alternative would doubtless induce many hard-core drivers to switch to rail.

Each of us related anecdotal evidence that our fellow residents in south Louisiana show increasing support for passenger rail transit between BRLA and NOLA. Most of these folks would probably see the eighty mile NOLA-BRLA stretch as the local leg of a gulf-wide rail system between Orlando and Houston. This coastal system would carry ticketed passengers under normal conditions…and evacuate people out of the harm’s way of hurricanes.

Given all of these considerations, we wondered how long it will take before elected officials on the third coast recognize why passenger rail systems on the east and left coasts are so popular. Our drive ended with this conundrum unanswered.

By pure coincidence, the day after the drive home from Mardi Gras this video clip was posted in HuffingtonPost, an ad for passenger rail based on the popular cable TV show Mad Men.

Finally, Will Sentell reported in The Advocate on March 16 that passenger rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is not dead…but it’s got a long row to hoe.

*Founding editor

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  14. Rocky Raccoon says:

    Frank Luntz is a hired gun who is employed mostly by conservatives to great utility. However, one of his rare forays on the liberal side, he was actually hired to re-vamp the language of environmental protection. The result is a 24-page presentation titled “The Language of a Clean Energy Economy.” There is quite a bit of overlap with Luntz’s presentation and the topic of your post. Luntz is creepy squared, and even more so when he takes a break from our opponents side in order to join our team, however briefly. I think his presentation is worth checking out for one important reason. Conservatives are all about effective messaging and ideology, liberals are more empirically motivated. I’m willing to bet that if environmentalists en masse had adopted Luntz’s suggestions, the whole environmental movement, including light rail (jobs, clean energy) would have been much more successful. Which brings up and even larger point: should we stoop to the level of identity politics, ideology, and shady politics (think O’Keefe) in order to have a bigger impact? It’s the sort of moral question that garden-variety conservatives blew past in their Hummers without even batting an eyelash. Still, we hold ourselves to higher standards. But should we?

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