Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 3 – Freeway and Interstate Road Costs

One of the top reasons for not developing a high-speed rail system in the U.S. is apparently the cost.  “We can’t do it because it will cost too much” is voiced without any knowledge of what the actually costs really are – it’s a mantra from those who do not want competition or change.  Just imagine what America would have been like if the initial investors in the rail system of the 1800s had been faced with that and we had to stay with horse and wagons during the western expansion.  Yes, wagon trains were an integral part of that early slower expansion prior to the American Civil, War, but afterwards it was the rail that allowed Euro-centric people to rapidly expand across the country to create the USA we know today.  So, was rail simply outmoded by automotive transportation, or was it something else that caused the decline of the great American rail roads? 

After the Civil War the U.S. train networks ran across the country.  The cattle drives, so popularly portrayed in western movies, were only a few years of the West’s history until the late 1860s: After that the rail lines spread south to the grasslands so cattle could be transported quickly and efficiently to the stockyards and slaughterhouses of the Great Lakes, and then to the cities of the growing Eastern areas of the continent – Prairie grasslands and farmlands to dinner table in less than 5 days with new grazing and watering cattle cars plus refrigerated freight cars keeping everything fresh.   It was the hay-day for the rail system until new businesses were born that competed for the railroads effectiveness.  First, decentralization of the cattle industry occurred with feed-lots taking over from full-time range grazing.  Next, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller had other ideas for which industries would dominate the American transportation scene.  Rail survived because of the need for Heavy freight (e.g. Coal), and passenger rail in the pre-airline era for most regular people traveling long distances – only the well-off could fly anywhere.  Ford lobbied extensively for roads with his new trailer trucks to carry freight and automobiles to take Americans everywhere, and Rockefeller was happy to lobby to provide gasoline to take them there.  While the rest of the world invests in building new high-speed rail systems, the U.S. sits quietly with some minor projects (by comparison), the excuse being that rail is too expensive.   So what kinds of expenses are we talking about?   First let’s look at the freeway-interstate system of roads.

Dwight D Eisenhower returned from Europe impressed by the German Autobahn system, started in 1913 as a public works project with over 1300 miles completed by 1939, that allowed Hitler to truck his troops quickly around Europe.  When Eisenhower became President of the USA he promoted the Interstate road system as a defense initiative.  It begun in 1957 with $25 billion of appropriations and was officially completed in 1992, although new section are still being added as traffic needs are realized for over 48,000 miles of interstate.  The estimated final cost was about $500 Billion (about $5-10 million per mile).  The amount of modern traffic and weather impacts makes repairing the Interstates during ‘Orange Barrel Season” an ongoing and highly lucrative business, and also a source of great frustration for traffic trying to move around the country.  The Federal interstate system was funded 90% by the federal government and 10% by the States through a highway gasoline tax.  One problem with this is that this redistributed gas tax revenue from states with lots of drivers to those with very few drivers.  The result being that funds were often taken from states that need more transportation infrastructure than they have to states that have more transportation infrastructure than they need.  Prior to the interstate system, major road projects within a state were paid from through toll systems (turnpikes) – user pays fees. 

One of the biggest costs of placing freeways through a city is the disruption to neighborhoods.  This involved a lot of eminent domain and rerouting of existing urban roads plus interstate exists to allow local traffic to still flow while allowing through traffic unhindered motion.  The problems occur (especially at peak traffic times) when freeway ‘incidents’ happen to slow the traffic flow.  Incidents as bad as accidents to people simply driving badly are enough to create the daily traffic jam woes we take as normal no matter how many lanes get added.  The term ‘Induced demand’ explains how expanding freeway traffic lanes merely allows more drivers use the freeway. 

Traffic jams can be temporarily ameliorated by new traffic systems and addition of more lanes (after the inevitable construction delays), but with over 850 cars per 1000 people in the USA the same traffic jams reoccur within 18 months.  We seriously need to rethink roads as the only solution to moving people and freight around.  And this problem is everywhere in the world.   In the previous post I talked about an 8-hour trip using high-speed rail from Munich to Amsterdam.  To drive would have also taken 8 hours under ideal road conditions but would not have been as relaxing (car rental and gasoline costs would have been more than my train ticket).  A few years ago, instead of taking the 4-hour train journey, I drove from Calais to Amsterdam in what should have taken less than 4 hours.  I spent 4 hours of that final 8-hour trip sitting in multi-lane traffic trying to get around Antwerp.  In Britain a year ago, I spent 5 hours doing what should have been a 2-hour drive because of motorway construction.  Freeways can be great, but only in ideal conditions, which are fast becoming rare.  Supporting alternate transportation systems is much more than trying to support renewal energy systems, it is about sustainable ways of getting people where they want to go in the most convenient, safest, and cost-effective systems possible.  Over a century ago, our ancestors could get to near where they wanted to go by taking the train and then using a horse system to get to the place they wanted to be.  Automotive transportation is certainly convenient (when it moves) but maybe there is a way we can use high speed renewable transportation and local systems when we get there.  Obviously, cost is a major factor to consider.  While interstates are not cheap, what is the cost of a high-speed rail system by comparison?  To be continued…..