Thursday, June 5, 2008

Keeping an open mind on transportation policy

Gov. Perdue has been pretty consistent about transportation issues - he regularly prevents any advancement on issues like commuter rails or light rail, isn't interested in helping Atlanta fund major infrastructure projects, and just generally wants more roads. He's from the old school Southern school where more roads = economic development. That's great for south Georgia, but it pretty much screws metro Atlanta.

The one little spot of light in this issue is that Gov. Perdue has been just as consistently in support of commuter buses. He currently is making noise that he wants to expand existing commuter bus service by buying more buses. He also says:
"The price of petroleum certainly makes transit a much more attractive option."
Well, at least that is a start...

On a slightly similar note, Ezra Klein draws my attention to public transit stances by both presidential candidates. Obama, unsurprisingly, is pretty strong on public transit and wants to increase the nation's high speed rail network. He also has a good record working to expand public transit to lower income areas. John McCain, conversely, wants to dismantle Amtrak and replace it with smaller, private rail companies.

Now, I'm not going to immediately harp on McCain here. I'm not categorically opposed to privatizing passenger rail service - if it means getting better service and more investment in high speed rail, it might be a very good thing. Amtrak often runs along old freight lines it does not own, for example, which limits the speed and reliability of service. A private company might be more interested in looking at alternatives. Competition does drive innovation, and the American rail industry needs it.

My concern is that privatizing rail service might effectively kill it. I am not a transportation policy expert, but I don't have any reason to think that passenger rail of any sort will fare better than any other form of transportation. As I highlighted the other day, it's not like airlines are exactly economically viable these days.

So I suspect that any privatization of passenger rail service would need to come with healthy government subsidies like the kind we regularly give the airline and automotive industries. Otherwise, I don't see any way it could succeed. Transportation is one area where the magic of free markets isn't going to solve all the problems.

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