Train talk is busting out all over the place. Next Monday, bicycle enthusiast Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., will convene the annual three-day Rail-Volution conference in Portland, Ore., designed to bring together people who are "passionate" about using street cars and commuter trains to create "livable communities." And last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) shuttered construction of a major commuter train tunnel to Manhattan, citing lack of funding. Because the federal pledge for the project came out of the Transportation Department's New Starts project, the $300 million New Jersey has already spent for the tunnel will have to be refunded to federal coffers, according to the state's two senators.
What's going on here? Rail enthusiasts like Blumenauer and Vice President Joe Biden are promoting high-speed rail and commuter trains to save energy and lighten up on highway traffic. But, as Gov. Christie demonstrated, those enticements aren't always enough to win over states with tight budgets. Meanwhile, track space isn't unlimited, and freight rail carriers worry that more passenger trains will relegate their cargo to the sidelines.
How can the government support the growth of new passenger rail systems in a way that won't bankrupt the federal treasury or leave states high and dry? How can the competing needs of passengers and freight rail be balanced? Who should be involved in these types of decisions?