Delaware Senator Dares to Utter the Word “Transit”

carper.jpgEven as the price of gas turns into a hot-button campaign issue, the presidential candidates are studiously avoiding the "T" word — transit — for the most part.

But the notion of driving less and riding more is bubbling up, even in the corridors of Congress. We turn to Delaware Senator Thomas Carper, who made use of a floor debate on reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to deliver the following remarks last week:

I ride the train back and forth most days. I live in Delaware, and
I go back and forth. As my colleague, the Presiding Officer, knows, I
go back and forth almost every night to Delaware. A strange thing is
going on with respect to passenger rail ridership in this country.

I used to serve on the Amtrak board when I was Governor of
Delaware, and every year we would see ridership go up by a couple of
percentage points. We would struggle, try to raise money out of the
fare box to pay for the system and the expansion of the system. Well,
the first quarter of this fiscal year, ridership at Amtrak is up 15
percent. Revenues are up by 15 percent. People are starting to realize
that maybe it makes sense to get out of our cars, trucks, and vans and
take the train or take transit. Transit ridership is up again this
fiscal year more dramatically than it has been in some time.

The speech may be buried in the Congressional Record (search for S3479), but who else in the Senate is connecting the dots between reducing dependence on oil and investing in rail? More from Carper, including some astute observations that touch on land use, after the jump. (Be sure to read the last paragraph.)

Americans are beginning to literally buy homes in places that are
closer to opportunities for transit — for rail, for bus, for subways,
for the metro systems. As we have seen the drop in home prices across
the country — in some cases, very dramatic — among the surprises, at
least for me, is to see housing prices stable and in some cases
actually going up in places where people can buy a home and live and
get to work or wherever they need to go to shop without driving to get
there.

I don’t know how gullible we think the American voters are to
suggest to them that we are going to have this holiday on gas taxes,
Federal gas taxes, for 3 months or for 6 months, maybe to get us
through the next election, and then when the elections are over we
will go ahead and reinstate the gasoline tax to what it has been even
though in doing that we might be depleting further the money available
for transportation improvements. I don’t know how foolish we think the
American voters are. They are a lot smarter than that. They are a lot
smarter, maybe, than we give them credit for being.

I think in this country people are crying out for leadership. They
are calling out for Presidential leadership, whether it is from our
side of the aisle or the Republican side. People want leaders who are
willing to stay out of step when everybody else is marching to the
wrong tune, and I would suggest that the wrong tune is to suspend the
Federal gasoline tax and at the same time not replace the dollars that
would otherwise go into the transportation trust fund to fix our
dilapidated, our decaying transportation system. Voters in this
country deserve better leadership from us. I am determined, I am
committed to making sure we provide and pay for that.

Before I close, there are a lot of good ideas for things we ought
to do. I mentioned, tongue in cheek, that we ought to provide more R&D
investment for a new generation of lithium batteries for plug-in
hybrid vehicles. I say, tongue in cheek, we ought to use the
Government purchasing power to commercialize advanced technology
vehicles. We are doing that. I said with tongue in cheek we ought to
provide tax credits to encourage people to buy highly efficient hybrid
vehicles and very low diesel-powered vehicles that are efficient. We
are doing that.

There other things we need to do too. We need to invest in rail
service. We can send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of
freight by rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. I will say that again. We
could send from Washington, DC, to Boston, MA, a ton of freight by
rail on 1 gallon of diesel fuel. But we as a government choose not to
invest in freight rail and, frankly, to invest very modestly in
passenger rail. It is a highly energy-efficient way to move people and
goods.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I think in this country people are crying out for leadership.”

    Well, Americans can’t all move to places with existing rail transit systems, find the time to ride buses, or build new rail systems overnight.

    It would be great if someone like Obama were to call on Americans to work together for their mutual benefit and start carpooling on a large scale to bring down the cost of gasoline, or bicycle if they can. Not just to work, but to shop or to church.

    It could be a great speech. “If Republicans can’t be bothered to work together to make things better, how about just Democrats? And if not all Democrats are willing to do it, how about just those who voted for me?”

    Remember, they are running to be the leader of the country, not just the chief administrator of the federal government.

  • If urban transit is free. There is no coercion, no begging, no cajoling. Those who are willing to ride will do so. As ridership increases the political power of transit will increase.
    A big reason people drive instead of taking Amtrak: they can’t get around without a car at their destination. Free urban transit will fix that.

  • spike

    The incredible efficiency of rail over trucking is why the cross harbor rail tunnel to LI is so important. Shipping a 20′ container or goods by rail across the country costs about $3000, by truck its more like $7000 and rising fast. This difference is mostly because less fuel is used. And of course there would be the added benefits of many fewer trucks moving though NYC, reducing smog and congestion, making the city a more pleasant place.

    And it is nuts to be using airplanes to get from NYC to DC or Boston. Some improvements in the tracks would allow trains fast enough to get to Boston in 2-2.5 hours.

  • JF

    Delaware’s senior senator, Joe Biden, also commutes every day by Amtrak, and has been the agency’s strongest supporter in the Senate. Delaware’s single representative in the house, Republican Michael Castle, also describes himself as a “regular Amtrak rider” and has also supported Amtrak.

    Any chance we could trade their Senators for ours?

  • Check out this 30 second clip I shot on a high speed train from Brussels to Cologne last summer.

    Notice that the train is moving quite fast between cities with hundreds of people, bicycles, strollers, and so on on board. The top speed of this train is 205 MPH and cruises at about 180 MPH.

    Then, notice the limited-access freeway next to the train. The freight is moving unencumbered. The mobility of this system is very effective.

    It also supports access at the destination. We arrived in the center of the city and we were off and about in a mid-size modern city with high levels of access. Should this be called access-supportive mobility?
    ftp://ftp.trans.ci.portland.or.us/raisman/Indianapolis/Brussels%20to%20Cologne%20high%20speed%20train.AVI

  • MrManhattan

    Since we’re talking Amtrak…

    One little known fact is that you can use frequent flyer miles from some airlines (I use Continental) in exchange for Amtrak miles. For short trips (Northeast Corridor from DC to the Canadian boarder I believe) the Amtrak trip will be about a quarter the number of miles (not to mention the time and cost savings resulting from not having to get to and from an airport.)

  • ddartley

    Kudos for digging this up. And Kudos to Senator Carper.

  • Dave

    We will never have true high-speed trains in the Northeast as the NIMBY-ers and lawyers will never allow the property condemnations that would be necessary to put in a relatively straight track from Washington to Boston. Lawyers run this country to all our detriment.

    And enough of the ridiculous free transit argument. Where in the world is it given away? It’s still cheaper to take transit than to rent a car or take a taxi…make it free and service would only be cut back.

    If anything we need to raise fares and undo the damage in NYC done by our ridiculous City Council in getting rid of the two-fare zones. You ride further you pay more. Democracy in action.

  • grammar

    As a former resident of DE and a frequent Wilmington to DC commuter (the trip these distinguished gentlemen all take), I think it worthwhile to mention that Amtrak is the only reasonable way to get between the two cities. Taking I-95 in the morning and evening would mean a rush hour trip through Wilmington, Newark, Baltimore and the notoriously congested DC suburbs.

    That’s not meant to diminish from the pro-transit message in this post, but to contextualize the First State’s all-Amtrak representatives.

  • Dave, what’s the point of saying, “never”? What does it accomplish? People probably said “never” about high-speed rail in France – until someone went and did it.

    Grammar, when you’re talking about Biden or two former governors like Carper and Castle, it’s a chicken-and-egg thing. If they were like Chuck Schumer or Al d’Amato, they’d probably have funneled money into widening Route 301 to Interstate standards. Instead they fought to have Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor funded to the point where it’s a good commute.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Just on the dirty little business of money. Delaware has the highest tolls per mile of anywhere on I-95. That helps fund a lot of stuff and the beautiful thing about it is that the people from NJ and NY pay a lot of that whack. Jersey could get the same leverage out of I-95 given the political testicles, I’m not holding my breath. CT “shrewdly” removed their tolls on I-95 completely. Its a tough stretch of road by any standards but little Delaware, home of the DuPont tax haven, leads the way in market based transit funding with Interstate highway tolls.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    Just one little tidbit that some of you may have missed.

    European countries were able to do high speed rail because they actually have open land to put the ROWs in due to good land use practices over the past 60 yeats.

    Here in America and particularly in our Northeast area, there would be WAY too much sprawl to cut through; never mind the lawyers fighting (a actual virtuous) use of eminent domain.

    Sprawl has doomed us in more ways than most people think. Not only does it keep us dependent on cars, destroy valuable habitats and farmlands, degrade water resources but it also has “hamstrung” America from being able to do many of the transportation projects we will need in the 21st century.

  • Cap’n Transit

    That’s definitely true to some extent, Andy. In Paris, there’s a right-of-way that was cleared for a highway, but instead was used for the TGV Atlantique, and now hosts a nice greenway on top of it.

    But there is still some room for rights-of-way. For example, there are several ROWs that are currently used for rail-trails or freight-only, but could be revived for high-speed rail. In Connecticut and Massachussetts there’s the Air Line, which runs conveniently parallel to the Shore Line.

    In Westchester and Putnam there’s the Old Put, that runs parallel to the Harlem and Hudson lines, and in Rockland there’s the West Shore Line. In New Jersey there’s the West Trenton Line. There are probably similar lines in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

    The suburbs of most of the big cities in Europe are pretty much as sprawly as the big Northeastern American cities. In Paris, the other TGV lines (Nord and Sud-Est) run on conventional tracks until they get outside the suburbs. The bypass tracks were created long before the TGV was invented.

  • Still, as gas gets more expensive, demand for highways will shrink, and we can take some of the NJ Turnpike’s right-of-way for the new high-speed train.

  • #8 = Troll.

    “I think in this country people are crying out for leadership.”

    That is absolutely true. And this year, I believe we’re going to get it. I think Obama along with a Dem controlled congress (and potentially an all-Dem NYC delegation) will give us our best shot at transit policy in decades.

    We need to be drawing up our dream plans and to be ready to forcefully advocate for them when the tide changes.

    Build the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel. Bury the Gowanus Expressway, with dedicated express BRT. Tie the PATH system in more closely with the MTA. True regional rail planning for NY,NJ & CT. A transit oriented Tappan Zee bridge. A Second Ave Subway that runs from the Bronx to Staten Island by way of Brooklyn. Rail connection to La Guardia.

    And a true national high speed rail system.

    But most importantly, ignore naysayers who bitch about everything and offer no solutions. We can accomplish all of these things. It will take time, but if we’ve got vision, we can make it happen.

  • Gary, right on! Let’s not forget pedestrianization of Broadway and creating a pedestrian and light-rail corridor on 42nd St (www.vision42.org).

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Not for nothing Cap’n but the D’Amato/Moynihan was responsible for lots of AMTRAK and MTA funding coming to NYC. Senator Pothole was pretty good at fixing tracks too.

    Though I applaud your next piece considering the value of the dormant right of ways. In “under-served” Brooklyn and Queens there are two enormously valuable dormant right of ways, the Rockaway Branch and the Bay Ridge Branch. It is important to put in place development policies that can utilize those spaces over the cold dead bodies of the NIMBY, BANANA and CAVE forces.

  • Fritz

    Just another quick thing to use against Amtrak naysayers (if you live in the North East, that is). People always complain about Amtrak always wasting money but it is profitable in the North East corridor and other heavy commuter zones. Commuter train can make money. It’s sending it out into the middle of Wyoming that isn’t (even though I support a broad train service).

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

STREETSBLOG USA

And the Capitol Hill Streetsies Go To…

|
Happy 2011! May this year bring peace, harmony, and a six-year transportation reauthorization. The best part about 2011 is that it’s not 2010. Last year was a tough one at the federal level: constant extensions of both the transportation bill and the general budget, no progress on an adequate funding source for infrastructure investment, and […]
STREETSBLOG USA

Can Free Transit Work in a Real City?

|
Today on the Streetsblog Network, Jarrett Walker at Human Transit points to the interesting case of Tallinn, Estonia, a city of 426,000 people that seems to be pulling off a feat that defies the conventional wisdom: operating a transit system that people can ride without paying fares. Most transit agencies are skeptical that a fare-free […]
STREETSBLOG USA

“Stupid Pedestrians” Aren’t Causing the High Death Toll on Delaware Streets

|
According to new data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Delaware is the most dangerous state for pedestrians per capita. Already this year, 28 people have been killed while walking in the tiny Mid-Atlantic state, about twice the national average, according to the News Journal. Predictably, the comments on the story are disgusting, notes James Wilson […]