Steve already mentioned Philip Longman’s article on trains from this month’s edition, which is really worth reading. Two paragraphs really leapt out at me. The first:

“Let’s start with the small-scale stuff that needs doing. There are many examples around the country where a relatively tiny amount of public investment in rail infrastructure would bring enormous social and economic returns. Why is I-95 so congested with truck traffic that drivers divert to I-81 and overwhelm that interstate as well? One big reason is that railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line. In 2007, it submitted a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a steel wheel interstate from Washington to Miami, but no federal funding has been forthcoming.”

Can you say “shovel-ready”? I thought you could. The idea of a project that would both shorten train times up and down the northeast corridor and get trucks off I-95, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependence on foreign oil, is a wonderful thing. The idea that detailed plans for it already exist at a time when we need immediate economic stimulus is downright miraculous.


“All over the country there are opportunities like the I-81/Crescent Corridor deal, in which relatively modest amounts of capital could unclog massive traffic bottlenecks, revving up the economy while saving energy and lives. Many of these projects have already begun, like Virginia’s, or are sitting on planners’ shelves and could be up and running quickly. And if we’re willing to think bigger and more long term — and we should be — the potential of a twenty-first-century rail system is truly astonishing. In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation’s highways by 2030, while also delivering ample capacity for high-speed passenger rail. If high-traffic rail lines were also electrified and powered in part by renewable energy sources, that investment would reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emission by 38 percent and oil consumption by 22 percent. By moderating the growing cost of logistics, it would also leave the nation’s economy 13 percent larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.”

Let’s just do it. An investment that would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 38%, and would do so not by requiring that we all wear sweaters and huddle together for warmth, or pray for breakthroughs in battery technology*, but by using an existing technology in ways that help citizens and businesses alike, is one we just ought to make.

*Not that I have anything against battery technology; I just think it’s best to fight our dependence on fossil fuel on as many fronts as possible, and this one seems like a no-brainer.