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Op-Ed: Washington-Birmingham Rail Could Pay For Itself

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Washington-Birmingham Rail Could Pay For Itself

By Johnny Isakson

(As appeared in The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Over the last 30 years, Atlanta and Georgia have led the way for economic success and growth across the New South. This growth, however, has come at a cost as we have seen relentless traffic congestion not just in metro Atlanta but in other metropolitan areas around the Southeast. To ensure we do not become a victim of our own success, we must consider investing in a high-speed rail system throughout the Southeast as an innovative way to connect our cities without increasing the burden on our interstates and airports.

I am glad President Barack Obama has chosen to focus on high-speed rail because I have been a big believer for years that high-speed rail will complement the Southeast's transportation infrastructure, reduce congestion on the interstates between the region's economic centers and increase our competitiveness around the world.

What we must avoid at all costs, however, is a rail operation built on subsidies. That is a model that has not worked and never will. We need to fundamentally alter our method of capitalizing rail transportation and put it on a footing similar to that of airports, freeways and seaports.

Governments —- a combination of state and federal —- should acquire the right of way and build tracks with user fees to pay for upkeep, levied by private rail corporations that would succeed or fail on their own performance. Passenger rail lines should be privately operated on publicly funded infrastructure. Private operation will lead to a competitive and efficient passenger rail industry.

Have you ever thought about the difference between railroads and airlines? With passenger rail in the United States, you subsidize everything. With air travel, you and I as taxpayers pay for the runways at Hartsfield and the infrastructure at Hartsfield, but that's where the public investment ends.

Delta, AirTran and other airlines risk capital and compete to deliver the services to move people from one city to another.

High-speed rail can succeed when projected ridership can support proposed operating costs. In 2000, Amtrak launched its high-speed Acela Express trains with service between Washington, New York City and Boston. At the time, 37 percent of travelers in the Washington-to-New York corridor took Amtrak while the remaining 63 percent traveled by other means. Today, those numbers are reversed. In addition, passenger rail ridership from New York to Boston has grown from 20 percent of travelers to 49 percent.

High-speed rail only works when trains go where passengers want to go and the number of passengers is large enough to support the operation. I believe the corridor from Washington to Richmond to Raleigh to Charlotte to Greenville, S.C., to Atlanta to Birmingham possesses the projected ridership to support rail service on a profitable basis, much like the Boston to Washington corridor.

There are estimates we could take 15 percent of the traffic off I-85 between Atlanta to Charlotte, and I view that as a very good utilization of federal investment.

With the presence of high-speed rail, Atlanta has the potential to be an anchor for multimodal transport. It could serve as the backbone off which other forms of transit such a light rail would connect regional communities. We have to think outside the box. We have to think intermodal. There is no reason why, in high-traffic areas, Georgia cannot take advantage of both light and heavy rail to make sure that people move smoothly and efficiently.

Republican Johnny Isakson represents Georgia in the U.S. Senate.


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