On track

ON TRACK…. There’s been quite a bit of talk about infrastructure as part of the focus on the economic recovery plan Barack Obama is proposing. And as part of the discussion, trains — and Atrios’ “Supertrains” — have been part of the policy landscape.

But what kind of investments are we likely to see? The incoming president has talked about “the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wise to invest in more and bigger highways, when the nation’s underfinanced and overburdened freight rail system is in need of expansion and electrification.

The New America Foundation’s Phillip Longman has a must-read piece in the upcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, highlighting the kind of benefits that would come with a focus on freight rail — allowing trains to carry most of the cargo now being shipped by the long haul trucks that clog and tear up our interstates — leading to less road congestion, fewer traffic fatalities, reduced road repair bills and significantly less emissions and energy use.

So where are policy makers?

[D]espite this astounding potential, virtually no one in Washington is talking about investing any of that $1 trillion in freight rail capacity. Instead, almost all the talk out of the Obama camp and Congress has been about spending for roads and highway bridges, projects made necessary in large measure by America’s overreliance on pavement-smashing, traffic-snarling, fossil-fuel-guzzling trucks for the bulk of its domestic freight transport.

This could be an epic mistake. Just as the Interstate Highway System changed, for better and for worse, the economy and the landscape of America, so too will the investment decisions Washington is about to make. The choice of infrastructure projects is de facto industrial policy; it’s also de facto energy, land use, housing, and environmental policy, with implications for nearly every aspect of American life going far into the future. On the doorstep of an era of infrastructure spending unparalleled in the past half century, we need to conceive of a transportation future in which each mode of transport is put to its most sensible use, deployed collaboratively instead of competitively.

Longman’s freight rail piece is a real eye-opener, and highlights a surprising fact: a 19th century technology could be the solution to our 21st century problems. Take a look.