Rail is the real road to progress

Shane Wade
Opinion Editor

Whether it be by car, train or plane, you’ll probably be traveling home to see your family this holiday season. Unfortunately, Virginia isn’t particularly effective with its travel infrastructure.

Let’s talk cars, for example.

Many of the complaints about traffic issues in Virginia relate to traveling on I-95, specifically when traveling northbound. To combat this problem back in 2007, Gov. Bob McDonnell approved and began construction on the I-495 Express Lanes project. Essentially, it’s four high-occupancy toll lanes geared to providing drivers in Northern Virginia a less congested and more reliable transportation improvement on one of Virginia’s busiest roadways.

The flaw in the Governor’s $2 billion road is that it’s short-sighted. Transportation experts like Rachel Weinberger, co-author of “Auto-Motives: Understanding Car Use Behaviors” agree that adding lanes and thus expanding highways are short-term solutions that actually create more congestion.

The 495 express lanes also rely on dynamic tolls that adjust toll prices according to traffic volume; the more traffic, the higher the toll. While it’s too early to get statistics or data, drivers won’t appreciate being doubly charged for driving on a road they already paid for through taxes.

It’s also necessary to consider factors like the rising cost of gasoline, road maintenance, the financial effects of America’s dependence on importing foreign oil, the cost of automobile collisions and accidents when considering travel by car. The state of Virginia spends millions of dollars a year taking care of roads primarily used for commuting when a faster, environmental and consumer-friendly alternative, but significantly underfunded option exist: the train.

Unfortunately for any American train enthusiast, America only has Amtrak as a provider for intercity passenger train travel.

While Amtrak is heavily subsidized by the federal government, it’s not as big a drain as roads are. Of the 2013 federal budget transportation request, $1.4 billion is designated for rail. The other $73.6 billion is for roadways. Car transportation is massively inefficient; although a 2012 report by the Census Bureau found that more than 86 percent of American workers commute using cars, more that 87 percent of that number drives alone. Only 10 percent of commuters engage in carpooling. Dividing the budget in a manner that favors car travel sends a bad message to the public. It also serves to reinforce the present focus on cars as the mainstream medium of transportation.

Virginians want rail. Norfolk has an Amtrak service running from Norfolk to Washington D.C.  scheduled to open on Dec. 12. According to the Daily Press, a Hampton Roads newspaper, the inaugural train is already sold out and public demand has forced the service to add four additional cars and 280 seats. That kind of demand is a mandate for the state government to take action. Although the federal government approved a $45.4 million grant for improving passenger rail between Richmond and D.C., the grant only covers preliminary engineering and environmental impact assessment of the feasibility of developing high-speed passenger rail. The project’s ultimate goal, according the an October press release by Senator Mark Warner’s office, is to provide 85-100 mph rail service that will allow passengers to travel 115 miles in around 90 minutes.

The project’s aims are a disappointment. Japan and China, among other nations, have had bullet trains and high speed rail for much longer; France, whose had bullet trains since 1959, has a train that traverses through the countryside at 357.2 miles per hour. Though it fails to surpass Japan’s magnetically levitated train, which hit 361 mph in 2003, it’s a mark at how far behind America is in transportation innovation. Not only should we be just as advanced as France, but we should also be working with state-originated funds.

Instead of pouring more money at expanding highways and pumping up infrastructure of the past, we should be investing in projects that will spur economic benefits for both the state and consumers.

While you’re taking your 2-3 hour trip back to your home during break, consider writing a letter to your Congressional official.

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