Highway Trust Fund going broke. Answer: Upgrade the U.S. Rail System
Not only the Greeks are facing bankruptcy; Ken Marsh, a Rail Solution Board Member and transportation professional, says the Highway Trust Fund is in similar straits.
“New highway construction is not affordable with current revenues,” Marsh contends. “The struggling of the U.S. Congress and Administration attempting to come to grips with this reality is everyday news. Yet the solution to meeting the nation’s transportation needs despite collapsing fuel tax funds is right in front of them. That solution is investing in the nation’s railroads rather than large interstate highway projects,” Marsh asserts. Marsh recommends that the rail system be modernized to satisfy much of the present and future demand, greatly reducing both need for highway expansion and maintenance costs, and stretching the highway dollars that we do have.
The Highway Trust Fund, launched in 1956, paid for the highly successful Interstate Highway System. Until five years ago, it operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, funding construction and maintenance of the Interstate highways we enjoy. Over the past four years more than $40 billion of general fund monies, much of them borrowed, have been transferred to the trust fund to compensate for inadequate fuel tax revenues. Nevertheless, the Congressional Budget Office projects the fund will be empty by 2014.
“There is simply inadequate funding to keep up with expanding truck freight and increased personal vehicle miles traveled,” Marsh contends. “With the system in financial difficulty, the nation needs lower cost alternatives to meet future needs. The most effective alternative is to make the freight rail system in the U.S. a fast rail system, financed by public-private partnerships,”
Tennessee, like other states and the nation, is short on funds for roads
In a recent statewide tour, Tennessee Highway Commissioner John Schroer emphasized the many multi-billion dollar projects on Tennessee Department of Transportation’
States subsidize heavy truck traffic at the rate of nearly 9 cents per mile
“Tennessee has very heavy truck traffic on Interstates 24, 40, 65, 75 and 81,” Marsh explains. “A very high percentage of 18 wheelers traverse the entire state east-west and north-south. Indeed three of the heaviest concentrations of long haul truck traffic in the United States converge on Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville.”
A 2010 study commissioned by Virginia determined that trucks traveling along I-81 cost VDOT $.087 per mile in maintenance costs for interstates over and above the tax revenue received by the state from each truck mile traveled.
“Applying this cost, not adjusted for inflation, indicates each long-haul truck using I-40 and I-81 across Tennessee is costing Tennesseans about $45,” Marsh says. Multiplied by thousands of trucks, daily crossing the state, this amounts to over $100 million every year of uncompensated damage to Tennessee interstates. The capital cost of building pavement systems capable of handling 80,000 lb. gross weight vehicles is additional.
Solving the problem of transporting freight
Dozens of ideas have been floated to address the growing problem of maintaining highway infrastructure while correcting bottlenecks and capacity issues. Everything from increasing fuel taxes, to tolling roads, to taxing miles driven instead of fuel, to vastly increase sales taxes on new vehicles, to general fund support, is being discussed.
“The advent of fuel-efficient and all electric cars which pay less tax as miles per gallons increase makes simply increasing fuel taxes patently unsatisfactory. Other approaches are necessary,” Marsh claims.
“Tennessee and the entire nation need to address our national addiction to petroleum and the international balance of payment problems for the U.S. economy that oil imports cause,” Marsh says. “Continuing current transportation policies inflicts unnecessary environmental damages. We need improved highway safety and enact fairer user taxes. There are private enterprise solutions to these vexing government problems.”
“RAIL Solution offers a ’two track solution‘ to Tennessee’s transportation quandary,” offers Marsh. “Indeed,”
Proposing a public/private partnership to divert trucks to upgraded rail lines
RAIL Solution seeks to catalyze a public/private partnership to upgrade rail lines parallel to major interstate routes to divert tens of thousands of long-haul trucks, daily, to efficient railroad transportation.
“Dollars spent importing petroleum would kept at home benefiting Americans,” Marsh points out. The STEEL INTERSTATE would save millions of gallons of petroleum, using efficient wheel on rail technology that yields three to four times the fuel efficiency of rubber tires on pavement.
Reduced wear and tear on our highway system, would free hundreds of millions of dollars for better maintenance and capital projects within the existing systems. Fewer heavy trucks on the interstates will free up capacity and make driving safer for remaining motorists. The environment would benefit from less land use for roads, fewer pollutants, especially greenhouse gases, and less noise.
An upgraded double-tracked rail system operating generally on existing rail rights-of-way can pay its own way versus the current practice of subsidizing trucking. Electrification offers even greater benefit to both our citizens and quality of life. In addition to the long-haul truck freight that can move via railroad at less cost, the railroads can profit from the increased business. This in turn produces more tax revenue at less public cost.
Possibility of frequent and affordable rail passenger service
Marsh points out that the Steel Interstate offers potential for frequent and affordable passenger service. Passenger service costs must be borne by the public sector, just as citizens already subsidize airlines, waterways, bus systems and trucks. Passenger rail would service many small communities that now have virtually zero public transportation.
We can make higher speed rail a reality throughout the nation
“Are we ready to address a core transportation issue for everyone’s benefit?” challenges Marsh. “RAIL SOLUTION is working regionally and nationally to bring about higher speed freight and passenger rail service. The benefits are legion. The cost is affordable with minimal public dollars. The Highway Trust Fund is not the answer.”
Additional references and information-
More on the Steel Interstate concept at this URL: http://www.steelinterstate.org
More on Rail Solution at this URL: http://www.railsolution.org
Steel Interstate- Summary of Concept
The Steel Interstate System concept calls for a minimum of two grade-separated through tracks, engineered, signaled, and dispatched for 79 to 110 MPH, offering frequent, reliable service. The electrified Steel Interstate System would create adequate capacity to divert most non-local truck freight to intermodal trains, and would accommodate passenger trains without impairing freight operations.
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About Ken Marsh
Ken Marsh is a member of the Board of Directors of Rail Solution and lives in Kingsport, Tennessee. Ken is a former member of the Kingsport, Tennessee City Council, with wide experience in the transportation industry. Ken is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, where he majored in Transportation. Contact Ken Marsh at 423-288-4321.
About RAIL Solution
RAIL Solution, chartered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, is a grassroots advocacy group with over 900 individual participants and a coalition of allied organizations. Rail Solution emphasizes balanced transportation planning, with a leading role for railroads.