Sunday, July 06, 2008

Bleak Future

Don Phillips is an internationally recognized authority on transportation. He writes a monthly piece in Trains Magazine, and he has a doozy in the current (August 2008) issue.

Whether or not he is right in blaming President Bush for the transportation policies of the past 8 years - and Congress is at least as responsible - you have to listen to the truths he tells.

Truth No. 1 - U.S. transportation policy is a mess. We would go one step further and say we have none, but we guess that maintaining the status quo with a minimum of funding and no new taxes is policy. Unfortunately, the status quo just won't cut it. Highways are just about at the breaking point, the air traffic system is as archaic as the California Zephyr was when the first jet passenger aircraft were in diapers, and we need all the intercity rail routes we have just to move freight. In fact, there are some parts of the country where starting up Commuter Rail to take cars off the roads will just put trucks on the roads in their places. It is just that bad.

Truth No. 2 - The public is in the dark as to transportation policy and transportation options. We are not talking about deciding whether to fly or drive - we are talking about whether we will have the option of getting there at all. The public sees rail transportation as an anachronism. We can see that in some of the responses we get to our blog. The public is not disturbed by the lack of options until the public is stuck in truck traffic on the way to an important meeting. The public sensitivity is so dulled by the continual squandering of tax money that it doesn't give a fig any more.

Truth No. 3 - Our leaders, the President, Congress, and state governments, would just as soon keep it that way. That's because if the public knew of the options and opportunities for a first-class transportation system that have been passed by - by elected officials more concerned about their re-elections than about the Re-public - then we, the people, would probably throw the whole lot of 'em out and start over.

Truth No. 4 - Nothing will get better if we ignore it. The way Mister Trains sees it: Fuel prices will level out or continue to rise, but they won't fall significantly and will never again drop to as low a percentage of costs for goods and services as they once were. We are beyond the break point, and some transportation companies, particularly those with no hedge on energy costs and with customers who cannot withstand any significant increase in fuel surcharges, will have to merge or quit business. That is true across the board, and we have already seen the bankruptcies in the air transport business. Any failure in one mode will put more pressure on another, and hence more costs through excess loading, wear-and-tear, and penalties on missed deliveries.

The cascade of chaos is awesome to contemplate. Eventually, we can see a few truck lines carrying on over highways to which we cannot devote any money because use taxes have dropped. We can see trains parked in sidings for days or weeks waiting for capacity. If that happens, you will see empty shelves in all retail establishments, even Walmart. We can see air traffic cut to a half or a third of what it is today. We can see Amtrak unable to get a train from one city to another because of the congestion. And we can see idle commuter trains in idle terminals, because half the work force that needed them won't have jobs. This one could make the Great Depression look like a cakewalk.

Our Enemies - and they are Legion - are licking their chops.

Bleak? Yes! Possible to turn around? Maybe. Don Phillips doesn't think so, and he has a lot more credentials than Mister Trains.

The scariest part of all is this: Not one average Joe or Jill who reads this has a clue what opportunities have been missed - what could or should have prevented this Bleak Future.

Down the road, we will attempt to tell you, if the First Amendment holds out that long.

©2008 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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