Sunday, November 29, 1998
'The Sunday Rutland Herald Commentary The Sunday Times Argus

Rail Deserves A Place On Fast Track


Ever try to drive from Portland to Burlington? For a few billion dollars, and a decade of
trench warfare across north-ern New England's green valleys, today’s highway advocates stand ready to speed your journey by constructing a new east-west highway. Time was, you could have made that trip, and hun-dreds like it, on pathways that had far less impact and that cost much less to build. Those pathways are called rail lines.
The time has come to reinvest and reinvent - the New England rail sys-tem. Rail can help restore the region's transportation vitality, strengthen its downtowns protect the natural envi-ronment, and promote economic devel-opment. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, driving has displaced rail travel.
Look around. New England is almost completely car-dependent. The result is creeping sprawl, tangled traffic, end-less commutes, needless consumption of land, increased air pollution, ongoing deterioration of our downtowns, and more costly public services. And the demand for transporting people and goods continues to increase.
The contract with rail - passenger and freight- couldn’t be sharper. Trains pollute less, consume less energy, and are much less dangerous than car and truck travel. Intercity rail service like Amtrak is the most efficient form of motorized transportation available. It uses one-tenth the energy of solo dri-ving. One railroad track can carry as many people per hour as 16 lanes of highway. Compared to heavy trucks, freight trains consume less than a quarter of the fuel and emit far less pol-lution per ton-mile.
Rail lines cost far less then high-ways. A mile of new single-lane road can run up to $5 million. The price tag to complete a 12-mile loop road around Burlington is $100 million and rising. In contrast, the state of Vermont esti-mates it could upgrade all 300 miles of its state-owned train routes for less than $80 million. And it is estimated that the entire rail system in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine could be rehabilitated for under $500 million.
-Trains also reinforce and promote compact land use patterns by concen-trating on economic development in downtowns, rather than adding to strip mail sprawl as highways invariably do. From Bangor to Brattleboro, Berlin to Burlington, many of northern New England's finest old downtowns are built around rail. Most of these lines exist today. And because the major cost of any transportation system - rights of way - are in place, rail constitutes a major untapped resource that has sat there unnoticed and underutilized for too long.
Despite this promise, real rail revival in New England faces major obstacles. The first is money. Although some claim our railroads are heavily subsidized, a second look would reveal that when it comes to the really big taxpayer gifts, highways continue to see the greatest share: Nationally, user fees and gas taxes paid by drivers support only 60 percent of the cost of our roads. Taxpayers foot the rest. In contrast, the farebox supplies 80 percent of Amtrak's operating costs.
Then there's maintenance. Lost in the fog of anti-rail rhetoric is the enor-mous competitive advantage we hand the trucking industry. Although a sin-gle loaded tractor-trailer causes almost as much wear on roadway as a thousand cars, that truck pays only a minor
fee representing only a small percent-age of the road maintenance costs asso-ciated with trucking. In contrast, rail-roads most pay the full freight to main-tain their own lines. Understandably, rail finds it hard to compete.
Lack of coordination is the second problem. New England as a region has failed to create a truly regional rail system. Here's an example: Rail service from Boston to Montreal will become a reality only through the coordinated efforts of three states. But today com-munication among them on this mat-ter is nonexistent. As a result, New Hampshire is tearing up track on the White River Junction-to-Boston line north of Concord, while its neighbor to the west, Vermont is laboring hard to strengthen passenger and freight ser-vice on its portion of the very same route.
The solution lies in constituting a regional rail council to coordinate and promote rail investment throughout New England. To jump-start this badly-needed effort, an unusual coalition has come -together. It includes environmental and rail advocates, state trans-portation agencies, communities with rail potential, the ski industry and business interests. Convinced that rein-vestment in rail will provide significant benefits for the entire region, its mem-bers sponsored a regional rail conference Nov. at the University of New Hampshire. The conference gathered key government officials, business executives legislators and transportation experts to get down to details.
Cooperation is the essential ingredient. With it, we can travel forward into a new century on time-tested trails. Without it, we can waste billions more than necessary and savage our landscape. Imagine Northern New England could have a convenient, reliable train system similar to Europe's, one which moves people and goods conveniently and quickly. A major opportunity is ready to leave the station. The big question is: Will the key policy makers and politicians needed to make this happen step on board when the whistle sounds?

Mark Sinclair is director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Vermont Advocacy Center, Wayne Davis is chairman of Trainriders Northeast a rail advocacy group based in Portland, Maine; Steve Holmes is deputy director of policy for the Vermont Nattural Resources Council; and John Vihinen is vice president for planning and development at the American Skiing Company in Bethel, Maine.